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Would You Cuddle Up With an E-reader?

In this corner, weighing in at 10.2 ounces, or twice the weight of your cellphone, is the Amazon Kindle. The sleek, electronic reader that’s taking the publishing industry by storm is white, it’s thin as a pencil and it fits easily in your purse or briefcase. Want to read the latest bestseller? In seconds it appears right before your eyes. No more trips to the bookstore; no more heavy hardcovers weighing you down. But at $359, your wallet will admittedly be a bit lighter.

In the other corner, weighing in at 2 pounds and 576 pages, is the latest "New York Times" bestseller. Its pages are fresh from the printer, crisp to the touch. Flipping it open conjures images of lazy afternoons or lounging poolside. You bought it at a bookstore—real or online—which required either a trip or paying shipping fees. Either way, this book, though requiring no investment in equipment, costs at least twice what the Kindle user paid to read the same words.

Absorbing the written word isn’t what it once was. Whether you’re a new convert to e-reading or a die-hard fan of bound pages, you can’t ignore the evolution of reading. News reported by websites, e-mail and text messages is strangling printed newspapers. E-mail has replaced handwritten notes. And entire books can now be read on hand-held computers with a mere 6-inch screen. Considering that consumer demand has many e-readers back-ordered for weeks or months, these devices aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. In fact, new ones—Apple’s imminent iPad, for example—will likely keep coming.

Still, for many book lovers, reading isn’t just about receiving information; it’s about the experience.

The lure of the screen
• Readability
• Portable
• Pocket library
• Green

The reading experience with an e-reader is undeniably different, but fans like it that way.

While Amazon doesn’t track the demographics of its customers—and the publishing industry is still grappling with how to track e-reader sales— samplings of visitors to a Kindle users website indicate that the devices are most popular with people in their 50s. The devices’ key features perhaps indicate why.

All e-readers boast readability, a feature that is especially important for those who are past age 50, when it’s harder for more people to focus on near objects, according to the National Eye Institute. Easier reading begins with e-ink. That’s the electrically charged black particles that rearrange each time you click to the next page. The words appear on a soft gray background, much like a newspaper, and aren’t back-lit, eliminating eye fatigue common with computer screens. Unlike paper books, many e-readers offer different font sizes. The Kindle has six, changed by simply pushing a button. Considering that the number of new large-print book titles fell by a staggering 63 percent from 2007 to 2008 (8,895 to 3,303), the e-reader takes on increased importance for vision-challenged readers.

Lightweight and easily held with one hand or used hands-free, the device is suitable for those with arthritis or hand-flexibility issues. On an Amazon online forum for Kindle users, many customers indicated that they use a Kindle precisely because of problems with arthritis. Another bonus: No more propping up a heavy and awkward tome when reading in bed.

E-readers also make travel easier. With their ability to store a small collection, a traveler truly doesn’t have to decide what to take. The Kindle can hold 1,500 books; its brand-new cousin, the Kindle DX, with higher resolution and a 9.7-inch screen that mimics the dimensions of a hardcover book, can hold more than twice as many. And e-reading isn’t just for books; newspapers, magazines and blogs are also available.

Susan Ahern, 57, of Wilmington, N.C., is a convert to the Kindle. Ahern would often take two or three hardcover books with her on trips—not an easy weight to carry around. “A three-pound book feels like a 50-pound load when you cross a large airport terminal with it in your carry-on,” she says. “With the Kindle, I carry as many books and newspapers as I like.”

And because many airlines now charge for luggage, an e-reader can often make flying cheaper. “It’s a real issue now to add an extra five to six pounds to your suitcase,” Ahern says.

Before owning an e-reader, she also got tired of fishing wet newspapers out of her flower beds. Now, she has access to scores of daily news sites without even opening her door. “It is so much better than the paper,” Ahern says. “The Kindle is a more intensive experience.”

The feel of the page
• Techno-fatigue
• Paper lovers
• Book personality
• Sensory experience

Some avid readers cling to their hard-bound covers, even some who have embraced other technology.

“I’m a blogger. I’m on Twitter. I’m on Facebook,” says Dan Cirucci, 62, of Cherry Hill, N.J. “But I would never read an e-book. No way. Because the book is intimate. You hold it, you know it’s yours.”

E-readers’ dependency on electricity also gives Cirucci pause. “What if the battery goes out?” he says. “When I have a book, I don’t have to worry about plugging it in or turning it on.”

Author Judy Nichols, 53, would “never, ever want to curl up with an e-reader.” Her own books (including her latest,Tree Huggers), are available in e-book format, and she admits to feeling a little guilty about her bias. “There’s something about holding the book in your hands and turning the pages that can’t be replicated electronically.”

The e-readers might well be great gadgets, readers like these say, but they lack the one thing book devotees say they can’t give up: paper.

Paper connects the reader to the person responsible for the words: the writer. On an e-reader, one book reads exactly the same as the other. No art. No photographs or creative typography. No paper to finger. In short, no personality. Only a button to click.

“When books become computerized, you lose that contact with the maker,” says Cindy Bowden, director of the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. “When you pick up a book, you notice the feel, the touch, the way the ink bleeds into the paper.”

Paper also evokes the senses and makes a visceral connection. The book’s smell, the sound of a page turning and even the different textures. Books connect you with a time and place in ways an e-reader can’t, says Peg Silloway, 65, of Columbia, Md. “I have a book that I brought home from our cottage that smells of pine and the smoke from the fireplace.”

The math

Some big readers don’t buy books at all. They borrow from the library—and read for free. Others know by now that e-readers initially cost more—much more—than a book.

• Kindle 2: $359
• Sony Reader: $269.99
• eSlick Reader: $259.99
• iRex Digital Readers 1000s: $859

•"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" (Book 7), hardcover, 784 pages: $34.99
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, paperback: $14

Not all books are available as e-books, but many are. Of the two industry leaders, Kindle boasts a library of 285,000 books, most for $9.99 each. The Sony Reader provides free access to 500,000 books in the public domain, including classics like Jane Austen and William Shakespeare; the Kama Sutra and the Bible; and contemporary works like Sue Grafton and Dennis Lahane, even "The DaVinci Code." Another 100,000 are available for purchase from the Sony eBook Store.

Over time, e-readers could prove more economical than traditional books. For the price of buying 26 new hardcover books, one could also purchase the same number of e-books, plus the Kindle itself. And the devices allow readers to sample the first chapter of any book for free before purchase. Digitizing words could help elevate the medium, and in turn, boost a struggling publishing industry.

“What the computer has done for the book as we know it is to liberate it in many ways and allow it to achieve its full potential as a medium for creative expression,” says Nicholas Basbanes, author of "A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books" and professed book lover. “Do I use telephone books anymore? No,” says Basbanes. “I go online. As much as I love maps, and I love to handle maps, I use Google Maps.

A matter of preference

Perhaps the modern reader will simply choose the right medium for the situation at hand. Candace Talmadge, 55, of Lancaster, Texas, loves her Sony Reader for its convenience. She can use it to read books or PDF documents for work. But what she really wants is an e-reader that has the convenience of carrying around many documents in a small space but still has the feel of a book or magazine.

“People who tell you it’s too much like a computer—they’re right on,” says Talmadge, a syndicated political columnist and author of "The Scorpions Strike." “When I use it for work, I don’t have a problem with it. When I’m just reading for fun and pleasure, I would definitely prefer to read my novel in a tangible form.”

Talmadge says e-reader developers need to create the original reading experience with their devices, “only do it electronically and make it reasonably priced.”

Basbanes believes that the e-reader revolution has only just begun. He’s probably right. Condé Nast, the publishing powerhouse, and bookseller Barnes & Noble have their own devices in development. The Plastic Logic Reader, to be released in 2010, enables you to read newspapers, magazines and blogs and is thinner than a pad of paper, lighter than a magazine.

“But I believe that the novel, poetry, works of the imagination, really have a good life ahead of them in the conventional way,” Basbanes says. “I can’t think of any book of stature that has appeared strictly in digital form.”

Then again, like so many other bibliophiles, Basbanes simply prefers the old-fashioned book.

“One of my dearest friends, he almost apologized to me that his wife gave him a Kindle for Christmas,” Basbanes recalls. “I said, ‘James, we’ve been friends for a long time, enjoy it. You’re reading. That’s the number one important thing.’”

Cynthia Ramnarace writes about families and health from Rockaway Beach, N.Y.