Mozart Code

It's almost like being there. E-books in action. Read Tom Nolan's review of the new e-book, The Mozart Code, a mystery by Dick Adler.







First, let me establish my loyalties: I love the printed word. Books, comics, newspapers, magazines -- since childhood, little has compared to the pleasure of reading. I still have just about all of my Peanuts books, including a Fawcett paperback my parents gave me when I was 3 or 4 (I don't know the title; its cover is long gone). I re-read my whole collection every year or two, always starting with this book. The paper is a little more yellow every time, a little stiffer. But for 27 years, this book has always been with me, and we've watched each other age; no other friend has been as constant, and when I open it I run my fingers along the pages, remembering the many other times in my life that I've performed this little ritual.

Now, how can an electronic book compete with that?

Answer: it can't. Many of us lifelong readers know this, and it's colored our expectations since day one.

A few months ago, I received a NuvoMedia Rocket eBook to evaluate for an article I was working on for the Montreal Gazette. I received the delivery at the office, so I passed it around for people to see. One of my co-workers played with it for about five minutes, then handed it back to me.

"It's nice, but I still prefer paper."

Smirking, I thought to myself: she had almost literally judged the book by its cover. That's when it clicked. She had done what so many others had done, and what I realized I had done: she held the e-book up to the standard of the paper volumes we've known all our lives, and it failed the test. This is the very basis of the classic arguments against e-books: "I can't dog-ear the pages." "I like the feel of paper." "It doesn't matter if I get sand in my ordinary books at the beach." Of course it failed. The test is designed for only one winner: paper.

It's an unfair comparison. By definition, an e-book is not the same as a paper book. It's held differently, built differently, used differently; complaining about the lack of pages is like complaining about a motorcycle's lack of air conditioning. Face it: most of these complaints simply don't matter. And yet the mental block remains.

The funny thing is, you would expect voracious readers to just adore e-books, if only on a practical level. How many of us buy new bookshelves every year to accommodate our new purchases? How many of us wouldn't mind reclaiming some of that floor space currently occupied by all those piles of books, magazines and newspaper clippings?

When I look around the house, I imagine it in an all-e-book future. The perpetually disorganized stacks: gone. The overflowing shelves, with all manner of books and magazines literally crammed in: gone. All those boxes that make it so difficult to maneuver in the storage closets, or for my wife to get through the tiny room on her way to the plants on the balcony: gone. We'd have room for the crib, the rocking chair, the exercise machine; there would be far less perilous shelves for the baby to attempt to climb.

Not all the shelves would disappear, of course. We'd need room to store the flash memory cards or discs or whatever they come up with to store all this reading material. Maybe one shelf, then, with the more adult memory cards on the top shelf and the Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak memory cards down below for the young ones.

But what about my Peanuts books? I'll probably hold on to those, the same way my father holds on to his old pipe (unlit in over 20 years) and his Pascal store card; reminders of times past. (The kids can get their own Peanuts memory cards.)

"Aha!" you say, seizing on the Peanuts example. "Read your own words at the beginning of this essay. Aren't the emotional bonds to the physical aspects of the book -- the paper -- what ties you to the reading experience?"

Well, no. To be sure, the feel of paper provokes an emotional response, but then so do the pops and ticks on my vinyl jazz albums, most of which have since been replaced by CDs, so that I can hear the music better. The real emotional experience comes from the content, not the container. "Stella by Starlight" moves me because of Miles Davis' playing, not the recording medium. Similarly, an LCD screen can't diminish the power of a well-written work.

I'm sure there are still skeptics among you. Consider this: the printed word as we know it -- mass-produced, reasonably accessible -- is only a few centuries old, a fairly recent innovation. While every medium has its advantages and disadvantages, the ultimate power of a written tale comes from the words themselves. The Iliad wasn't originally a book; has it lost its power? How about Beowulf? Claims that e-books are cold or impersonal compared to paper books are a red herring; if you truly believed that, you wouldn't be reading this on your computer screen now.

If you can, I encourage you to try one of the e-books for a few days. I mean really use it. Read a book from cover to virtual cover. There's nothing like practical experience, right?

Actually using the Rocket eBook for its intended purpose is ultimately what won me over. I carried it around with me the same way as I would a book: I read Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in the park, on the bus, on the subway, on the couch. Aside from some of the quizzical looks I got on public transit, the reading experience was the same -- maybe even a little better. After all, I had set the type style and size to something I found easy to read, and could adjust the backlighting to suit any environment, so I never had to strain my eyes. And since the eBook's display can be rotated to four different orientations, it was always comfortable no matter what position I was in.

Ultimately, it came down to the writing. Carroll was as whimsical and blessedly demented as ever. One night, unmindful that I wasn't reading a "real" book, I fell asleep holding the eBook, dreaming of Mock Turtles and mad queens. The words, bitmapped as they were, had done their job. | November 1999


Emru Townsend is a freelance writer living in Montreal. His interests in animation, writing, and black history are combined on his Web site.


Check out e-books in action. Read Tom Nolan's review of the new e-book, The Mozart Code, a mystery by Dick Adler.