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A new leaf

As e-readers hit the market, real readers prepare for a new chapter in the life of their favourite obsession.

books Updated: Feb 13, 2010 17:04 IST
Pranav Dixit
Pranav Dixit
Hindustan Times

KindleImagine that the copy of Brunch you are holding in your hands is a sleek slab of plastic, the words printed on a screen that can barely be told apart from real paper. You press a button and flick to the next page. When you get tired of reading, you plug in your earphones and have the text read out to you. And, of course, every Sunday, the latest issue of Brunch is automatically downloaded to your device wirelessly.

This is not sci-fi. This is how you can read Brunch, because Hindustan Times is available on Kindle. And in the next few years, this is how most of us will probably read our favourite magazines and newspapers and enjoy the latest bestsellers. E-readers, like the Amazon Kindle, promise to change the way we read. What the iPod did to the music industry, Kindle will do to the publishing industry, say experts. Will it really? And how?

Moving with the times
“It won’t,” says Arjun Ahluwalia, marketing executive and insatiable reader, vehemently. “At least, I hope it won’t,” he adds. “There’s more to books than their content – there’s the smell and texture of the paper, the delight of the cover, the happiness of having something you love physically present in your hands and your home. E-texts have no soul.”

But while a lot of people may agree with Ahluwalia, a whole lot of people don’t – and won’t. For instance, there was a time when Shakti Salgaokar, a Mumbai-based writer, was strongly opposed to e-books and e-readers. When she used the Kindle for the first time while vacationing abroad, however, she was an instant convert.

“The moment I used it, I just thought ‘I have to have this!’” she says. “Since then, it has been a fantastic experience. I love the fact that I’m not weighed down by my books, especially while I’m travelling on crowded Mumbai locals.”

Carry your favourites
E-readers and e-books will work for a variety of reasons. For publishers, it will bring the costs of books down (and save trees), since expensive paper and printing processes will no longer be required. That should make things cheaper for readers too. Plus, as Salgaokar pointed out, e-books are easier to read on the move, and, because they are stored on the e-reading device, also take up no space at home. Instead, as long as you have the device with you, you have all your favourite books.

“There’s nothing like being able to carry your entire library anywhere,” says 30-year-old marketing professional, Chirag Patnaik, who reads about three books a week. So when Amazon launched the Kindle worldwide, it seemed just the right thing for him to get. “I have been reading e-books on computers for eight years,” says Patnaik. “So the idea of reading on a screen was not entirely alien to me.”

It was alien to Patnaik’s father-in-law, however, so Patnaik had quite a battle to get him to even try the Kindle. “But when he used it for a couple of hours, he fell in love with it. I guess it’s like any new technology. Using e-readers is just a matter of getting used to a new way of doing conventional things.”

Reading made easy
For people like Ahluwalia, for whom reading a book is a complete sensory experience, an e-reader can seem like a soulless thing – and inconvenient at that. That’s only natural, because for many people, computer use can be a painful experience. Ever tried reading for long hours on your laptop screen? If you have, you know how much it strains the eyes.

Which is why there were very mixed reactions to e-readers till Amazon launched the Kindle. But the Kindle made a breakthrough – it uses a special technology known as E-Ink to display text, which means that that you can read for as long as you want to without straining your eyes. This, and a built-in dictionary, are what make the device a must for people like Arushi Jain, a graphic designer from Pune. “There are some things about e-readers that I miss when I read normal books. I can’t do without the dictionary and a feature that lets you bookmark your favourite lines, pages or chapters,” Jain says.

E-readers also offer the advantage of getting a book instantly, instead of going to a bookshop or ordering online and waiting for your book to be delivered. “Nothing beats the convenience of instantly buying any book I want directly on the device,” says Salgaonkar. “Once, just as I boarded an eight-hour flight, I realised I didn’t have anything new to read. So I downloaded the entire works of Oscar Wilde on my Kindle for $3 (about Rs 150)!”

It’s pricey
The Kindle has downsides, however. It’s expensive, for one, priced at Rs 18,000, including taxes and delivery. And then, you need to pay between $2 and $12 for every book you buy. Wouldn’t real books available in Indian bookshops be cheaper?
“To a serious reader, I don’t think that is much money,” feels Patnaik. “Also, with time, the prices will dip.” But he concedes that since the Kindle does not have a colour screen, it is virtually useless for reading graphic novels and comic strips.

So does this mean the end of books as we know them? “I would be the last person to say that real books will go away,” says Patnaik. “I buy collectors’ editions and anthologies and you can’t deny that books have their charm. But of course, people said the same thing about LPs when CDs came along.”

Last month, Apple sent Amazon scrambling as it launched the iPad and the iBookstore. There are rumours of a Microsoft tablet, codenamed ‘Courier’. And Indian shopping site, Infybeam, has launched India’s first e-reader, the Pi.

Like it or hate it, if you are a reader, the revolution has just begun.

Uses specialised technology called ‘E-Ink’ to display text. A Kindle page looks almost like a real one and does not strain the eyes unlike LCD screens or computer monitors.
To turn a page, simply press the ‘Next Page’ or the ‘Last Page’ buttons.
With ‘Whispernet’, you can buy and download books instantly while on the go. This means that like your cell phone, it has a constant, wireless connection – you don’t have to connect it to a computer or be in a WiFi zone to get books.
The best part about it is the battery life – since it uses the battery only for turning pages and not for displaying the actual text, the Kindle will last you for two weeks before another recharge!
It has a built-in-dictionary.