Books are one of those holiday gifts that seem like a good idea, at least until it's time to pull one off the shelf and

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Read All About It

The newest way to enjoy making sense of words

Books are one of those holiday gifts that seem like a good idea, at least until it's time to pull one off the shelf and head for the register. Does Mom have this already? Did Dad like the first two books in the series? Will my brother think it's some kind of hint if I give him Housecleaning for Dummies?

Well, you have a couple of tech-ish options this year. Since you already sent at least one Amazon or B&N electronic gift certificate last year (oh, you know you did), consider giving something a bit more corporeal this time: an electronic book, either the kind with type on a screen or the kind with words in your ears.

In a universe both smarter and kinder, the Rocket eBook would have already already been a tremendous hit. It all would have started with their brilliant ad campaign, which would have shown a child's bedroom late at night, all the lights off, and the glow of a flashlight under the blankets showing that little Angela was reading a book under the covers. With just one perfect tagline—"Where was this when your bedtime was 8pm?"—the folks at NuvoMedia would have sold a zillion of these under-$100 darlings, mainly to me. Subsequent ads would show me reading the book in the passenger seat of a darkened car, me reading comfortably at the gym, and me wrinkling my brow at the Microsoft Findings of Fact condensed from 207 paper pages to just my wee eBook, with room left over for an assortment of light novels when I needed a little break.

Unfortunately, ours is not that universe. The eBook retails for $269. The marketing push has targeted air travelers and Scott Turow readers, not to mention air-traveling Scott Turow readers. And that's a damn shame, because if you can just ignore the reasons marketing folk think you ought to want an e-book, you're likely to find reasons of your own—not to mention a long list of friends who'll love getting the kind of cool tech toy that no one ever thinks they need till they get their hands on it. (And then they don't let go.)

Electronic books are a gizmo in search of a profit model, which is to say a gizmo in search of that potent mix of gadget junkies and early adopters that made the PDA (personal digital assistant) market go zoom. In the aforementioned Smarter and Kinder Universe, those people would be voracious readers. However, such is not our way, and the eBook and its kin are destined to succeed, if they do succeed, by covert conversion: one reader at a time.

And now they've got me. I adored my two-week fling with the eBook. I took it to the gym, where it was far easier to manage than the usual magazine (no page-turning! no folding the cover over! no idiots ripping pages out ahead of me!). I took it to bed, where I rediscovered the joy not only of reading under the covers, but of reading without my glasses, thanks to the very kind backlight. I took it to bars, where I'm sorry to report I became one of those nerds who shows off new toys to friends in bars.

What I did not do, however, was what the good people of NuvoMedia wanted me to do, which is buy electronic editions of books. It wasn't from lack of availability—both www.bn.com (Barnes & Noble's online tentacle) and www.powells.com offer thousands of likely-looking texts. However, I couldn't seem to get right with the idea of paying $20 for the electronic edition of a book that's $25 in hardcover.

The eBook's path to my heart was paved not by shiny new bestsellers, but by all those classics I've been meaning to read and haven't. The eBook reads not only RocketBook editions but text and HTML too. After a brief fling with reading Salon online, I discovered my little backlit friend's true destiny: a Gutenberg.net delivery device.

Gutenberg, if you're unfamiliar, hosts several thousand of the world's public-domain literary treasures as plain-text files, free for the downloading. I've read books downloaded on my computer before, and it's no fun scrolling through such things on the usual computer screen. But the same files downloaded to the eBook, with a fine backlight and reader-friendly type? I plowed through an average of one literary classic a day, missing deadlines, ignoring basic household chores, and generally enjoying all the antisocial pleasures of a really good book, with plenty more where those came from. (Alas, it'll be weeks before I shake the Austen and Bront렯ut of my own writing style.)

This is not, however, the profit model these NuvoMedia folks presumably had in mind. Their loss. They've got a hard road ahead; industry predictions are that electronic books won't take off till well into the next decade. In the meantime, you may not borrow mine.

Just because a product's way out in front doesn't mean it's doomed, you know. Audible has been kicking around for years, and though their Audible MobilePlayer hasn't exactly set the world afire, it's an excellent gift for those among us who prefer to be read to.

Audio books are one of those things that everyone likes sometimes and some folk like all the time. Audible offers over 7,000 books (often at much better discount than Rocket eBook users are getting), mostly of the self-help and condensed fiction variety that works best in this format. And the player's priced a bit more sensibly: A two-hour player costs $99, while an eight-hour version is $169.

A shade spendy (at least compared to the usual $25 gift certificate), but well worth it to be sure. Look at it this way: Buy a reader a book and she will read for a day; buy her the electronics to hold a book and she'll read for a lifetime, or at least until it's time to recharge. And don't worry about the late-blooming nature of these two cool devices; after all, readers are a breed familiar with the rich rewards of patience. Especially when it's time to read a book under the covers.

Angela Gunn writes about technology at 'Seattle Weekly.'

 
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