The next chapter: It's digital

Paul Miller is a word guy – a Davidson College English professor who makes his living reading, writing and teaching.

Books, naturally, play a big part in his life, lining shelves in his upstairs foyer, his kids' rooms, his office.

But in April, this 45-year-old professor took a step into a brave new world. He bought a Kindle – the paperback-sized digital book reader that's the latest contender in the race to revolutionize reading.

Three months later, he likes it. A lot.

Will the Kindle be the catalyst that launches books into the digital age? At this point, it's hard to know. The $359 device is generating lots of buzz, but Amazon, which makes it, won't release sales figures. Publishers report climbing e-book sales, but sales numbers were small to start with.

One thing's certain: More printed material is going digital – just like music and video. Already, growing numbers of book lovers are consuming books in new ways.

In Hickory, Nancy Posey uses her Sony Reader as she walks on her treadmill, enlarging type size to suit her eyes, turning pages with the flick of her thumb.

In Charlotte, Lori Reed multitasks with her MP3 player, listening to books while she vacuums and washes dishes. Her husband, Russ, downloads books to his PDA and reads in bed, no lamp needed.

Charlotte mystery writer Cathy Pickens recently downloaded the complete works of Jane Austen onto her Kindle, ensuring she wouldn't run out of reading material while traveling.

And Reece Chilton of Matthews has joined dozens of Kindle owners from across the country so bullish on their purchases that they've posted contact information on Amazon's Web site. That way, prospective buyers who live nearby can meet with them and get a demo. So far, Chilton's met with five local people. Three are now Kindle owners.

Diving into digital unveiled the Kindle in November. Like the Sony Reader, launched in 2006 and now selling for $280, the Kindle uses E Ink technology so the screen simulates a non-glare book page. But it's being touted as superior to the Sony Reader because its wireless technology and Internet access let you download books from almost anywhere in the United States, without being tied to a computer.

Paul Miller ordered his partly as an experiment. “The Rubicon for whether you would leave print is whether reading on a screen is as pleasing as on a page,” he says. “I was interested in that.”

Though production methods have evolved, the basic idea of the book – ink printed on bound paper pages – has endured more than 500 years, since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440.

And the book remains a nifty piece of technology – cheap, portable, ready when you are, no batteries or download needed. How do you top that?

For one thing, you put more book in less space. Several electronic-reader owners said they bought digital readers because their homes were overflowing with books. They also wanted an easy way to travel with books.

“I can take a digital book. I cannot take digital shoes,” says Chilton, who speeds through five or six books a week.

Miller enjoys multiweek bike trips. On past outings, he's made pit stops at used-book stores to lighten his load as he finished his books.

But on a recent trip to the N.C. mountains, he took his 10.3-ounce Kindle, which now contains about 60 books, mostly classics downloaded from free Web sites. (For newer books, you must buy and download from Amazon. Many best-sellers are $9.99.)

One Sunday morning, as he sat in a house outside Black Mountain, Miller decided he'd like to read The New York Times. He pushed a few buttons and there it was.

He didn't find the newspaper on a screen as satisfying as the ink-on-paper version. Then again, he appreciates that on windy days, he doesn't have to contend with the sports section blowing away.

But does he find reading books on the Kindle screen as satisfying as on paper?

Yes, he does. When he can pry it from the hands of his 11- and 13-year-old sons.

E-reading at the library

At the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County, collection management director Linda Raymond tries to anticipate patrons' desires.

The library's been ordering electronic books for about a decade, but demand remains low. Downloading the library's e-books onto a home computer can be daunting for first-timers, and titles available to the library are limited to older, less popular books. You also can't put the downloads on Kindles or Sony Readers.

But in June, Raymond attended Book Expo America, where Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos touted the Kindle and major publishers announced they were making thousands more titles available on the device.

She returned from the annual publishers meeting convinced that the age of digital books is about to dawn.

Raymond and others doubt the Kindle will be the last word in digital books. She predicts the iPhone will soon include an e-book reader. “It's just a matter of time.”

And when she imagines libraries a few years from now, she sees downloading stations along with shelves of books.

Matt Gullet, the library system's emerging technology manager, has his eye on technologies that mimic a book on paper, including flexible electronic paper that would allow you to “roll it up and kill the spider. At the same time, you could plug it in and get the newest Danielle Steele or Stephen King.” One such device, the Readius, features a flexible screen that unfolds to show text. It's supposed to be introduced in the United States in early 2009.

Ink-on-paper purists

Raymond hears from people all the time: No way they'd walk away from ink-on-paper books. No way they'd want to read electronic books.

Many Americans express similar sentiments. In a recent Random House/Zogby poll, 82 percent of all readers said they preferred a printed book to new reading technology.

National Journal media critic William Powers writes persuasively about the genius of traditional books: “With paper-based media, the fingers and hands take over much of navigational work: Because you can feel where you are, the brain is freed up to concentrate on the words themselves. This is one reason why it's easier to immerse oneself in a hard-copy book than in a long-form text on a screen. The book itself – its physical presence and format – has a dramatic effect on how we experience the content.”

Paul Miller, the Davidson professor, isn't planning to sell his book collection. He doesn't see the ink-on-paper book as an endangered species.

But he also doesn't agree with digital skeptics – book fetishists, he calls them – such as Powers. “I think people who argue for eternal things think they're eternal because they were raised that way.”

Plato, he points out, complained that written expression was inferior to oral expression. It was too impersonal, and the text wasn't able to defend itself from objections.

Miller's three children have been reading on screens since they learned to read. The youngest, Kristina, 8, hasn't been enticed by her dad's Kindle because she still enjoys books with pictures. Pictures aren't one of the Kindle's strengths. On the Kindle, they're small, black and white and slightly fuzzy.

But his two boys – Torger, 13, and Kirk, 11, aren't fretting about losing the feel of the page, the smell of the paper, the beauty of the bound volume.

“You just click a button to turn the page,” Kirk says. “It's easier.”