Space efficiency.

I have a problem: I read a lot. In itself, this isn’t the end of the world, but has some tricky consequences.

As a scarily voracious reader since I was very young, I buy books in great number. My “to read” pile seems to grow a bit faster than I’m currently working my way down it (life, you know?), and we’ve pretty much run out of space to keep the books. The bookcases — all of them — are full, and the staging piles around the house are beginning to teeter. Taken alongside my inability to dispose of any book, the problem becomes clear.

Over the last few years, I have almost completely stopped buying CDs. It’s not because I don’t buy music any more — I’m probably buying more music than I have at any time since I was sixteen. It’s just that these days most of the music I buy comes as a digital download, usually from either the iTunes Music Store or Amazon’s MP3 service. Physical discs have become an encumbrance I’d rather do without. (My wife took some convincing on this, but has been coming ‘round to the idea, too.) All our actual CDs are in big plastic boxes in the garage.

We haven’t taken the same step with video (TV boxed sets or movies on DVD) yet, but that’s mainly because video eats up hard disk space very quickly and the only active computer in the house is a laptop, where disk space is limited. Once I figure out the easiest way to keep track of media on external drives, that may change.

Books, then. Are books different? Part of me thinks so. I’m a little funny about books, a little reverential. It might be daft, and I trace it back to a specific incident when I was a child*, but I can’t get away from viewing them as a bit special, a bit more significant than other media. Unlike shiny platters, I like the things themselves a great deal — even the pulpy paperbacks, of which I have many.

Set against this is the geek in me, frequently glancing towards the world of the ebook reader.

Lately, I’ve taken to buying technical and reference books as ebooks. They’re easier to find for download than they are to get in any bookshop in Belfast, I like getting my (metaphorical) hands on them straight away, and an indexed PDF is much easier to handle than a five, six or seven hundred page lump of pulped wood. Having to read them from the computer screen is no problem, and can be very handy for reference books.

I’ve read one novel from the screen of my computer. It was a pretty poor SF thing that the author stuck up for free download a couple of years ago. Quality of the prose aside, it’s not a reading experience I’d be keen to repeat: reading fiction, or even non-technical non-fiction, is done differently. A laptop screen won’t do. Might a dedicated ebook reader?

Ebooks aren’t much, if any, cheaper than print. Project Gutenberg and the like aside, the benefit is convenience rather than cost, especially when you figure on spending a couple of hundred pounds on a reader. Also, not everything that’s published is available as an ebook, or in every format, but the genres I read seem reasonably well served.

There aren’t many hardware options available. You can get pretty good reader software for PDAs and phones, but I find the screen of my iPhone a bit cramped for reading long-form text. Amazon sell their Kindle readers, although they’re not yet available outside the US. There’s been talk for a while now of a UK launch, but no sign of it actually happening. Sony have their Reader hardware, which is sold here by Waterstone’s. There are a few other options from smaller manufacturers, but these two are the main contenders. (IREX wouldn’t count as a smaller manufacturer, but their hardware is crazy expensive. That said, their latest, just announced reader could be a definite contender.)

While the Kindle isn’t officially available here, it’s not hard to get one imported. I’ve spent some time with a friend’s Kindle DX, the main strengths of which seem to be its fantastic big screen and its excellent PDF support (important to me). It’s also a very nicely put-together item. However, outside the States it’s trickier to buy ebooks from Amazon, and they seem to be the main supplier of books in the Kindle’s preferred format. Also, you lose its ability to buy books and periodicals over-the-air. I fell in love with it a little, though.

The first Sony Reader to be widely available here was the PRS-505. I know folks who love theirs, and I almost bought one, but the slow page turn and the woeful PDF support put me off. The new PRS-600 seems to have sorted these issues out, though, and it supports a nicely large number of file formats, including the very widely-available ePub. I hope to get a detailed play with one sometime soon; I had been holding out for a UK Kindle DX, and even thinking of importing one myself, but the PRS-600 might take its place.

I think I’ve decided that it’s time for another shift in how I consume media, although I expect the flow of paper into our house to continue as a trickle. I’m just trying to figure out when and with which device.

I know there are at least one or two people who peek in here who use ebook readers. Please leave a comment with any advice you can offer.


* The incident: I was young. I was an avid viewer of Blue Peter. One afternoon they demonstrated how to make a nice cardboard picture frame, but the only cardboard I had available was the hardcover of one of my dad’s fishing books. It was impressed on me that you don’t do that kind of thing with books…