Architecture & Design: This one's a real page-turner

It's as small as a pocket dictionary yet contains enough books to fill a small shop. The only drawback with my Rocket-ebook is its cost - about pounds 300.
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The Independent Culture
OF THE nightmares I can still remember from childhood, none were so scary as the one about the nursery bookcase that reached all the way up to the ceiling. The books I wanted to read most, naturally, were the ones I couldn't reach. (How was I to know that the brown volumes on the top shelf contained the adventures of Little Rollo, a boy for whom every new day brought a fresh opportunity for virtuous deeds?) Scrambling up the shelves in my dreams to make a grab at these out-of-reach plums, I felt the bookcase rock and then lurch. The nightmare ended in a scream of fright as it swayed away from the wall and down to swallow me in darkness.

If only the electronic book had been around all those years ago. Who needs a wobbly bookcase when enough works to fill a small shop can be crammed into a gadget the size of a pocket dictionary?

I'm in love with a book-shaped screen. Now let me tell you why.

I'm going on a long plane journey, and can't make up my mind which book to take. No need to choose; I download 10 into my nifty little Rocket- eBook. My neighbour on the plane is desperate for sleep, doesn't like eye-masks - but my screen has a discreet backlight, throwing out no distracting flickers. I can read it for hours without bothering him, or causing my own eyes to ache.

Anybody used to reading on screen knows how uncomfortable it becomes staring at long lines of close print; the real genius of the new electronic book designers has been to produce a high-resolution screen with a proper book shape to it. You read on a "portrait" shape instead of the conventional "landscape" based on a TV screen; the pages turn rather than scroll. It may not sound a big difference but, to the reader, it's everything. Electronic scanning becomes, for the first time, as easy and agreeable as reading a book. More so, if we're talking encyclopaedias; it weighs no more than a Dick Francis. Small as a paperback, but a lot more elegant, the Rocket comes equipped with what the manufacturers call "an ergonomically rounded edge" to fit into the palm of your hand as comfortably as a well-made book spine.

Maybe the best thing of all about this brilliant little invention from my point of view is that it gives me, for the first time, a way of spot- reading novels. These, as we all know, never come equipped with indexes. Suppose you want to check the first appearance Uriah Heep makes in David Copperfield. Simplicity itself with the Rocket-e; just type in the name and push the button. The answer's yours in less than five seconds.

They've thought of everything: you can annotate, browse, make bookmarks, check words in a dictionary, underline, switch the font... when you get bored with doing all that, you can just lay the "book" casually in front of you on a table and wait for somebody to ask where they can get one, and how it works. Don't expect to wait long.

The makers see the biggest market for their invention in the professional readers of reference works, which are usually as weighty on the hands as on the purse. But there's no reason why the Rocket-eBook shouldn't be used in schools. If the price came down to, say, pounds 40 (from about pounds 300 now), and the cost of buying books in electronic form could be substantially dropped, huge improvements could be made to the availability of information materials. Reading needn't be threatened by the electronic book, but expanded and given a broader base. Think of hospitals, universities, old people's homes - all places where the price of books and space requirements act against the needs of readers. Think of smaller groups, of people who need to work on texts - translators, adapters, editors. The benefits to them of a gadget like this are incalculable.

There's no danger of the Rocket-eBook or its competitors in the field displacing the classics people will always want to own and handle; as a supplement, not a substitute, I can see it becoming indispensable. Technology doesn't often produce something so obviously able to be of immediate and far-reaching benefit. All we need is for publishers to put their faith in the future of gadgets like this and start working out how to make books available for downloading at minimum cost.

This being a design page, I'll make a few suggestions for improvement. Page numbers would be a help, for making notes and giving the reader a better sense of location in the text. A horizontal screen shift, instead of a vertical one, would increase the sense of a page being turned. And, for a gadget that calls itself a book, why not drop the conventional grey or matt-black body for something a bit more book-like, tan or red, with a logo on the curvy plastic spine?

Meanwhile, I'm just going to download another 10 titles for bedside reading...

The Rocket-eBook is available from www.levenger.com - for electronic books, contact www.barnesandnoble.com

Miranda Seymour's novel `The Telling' will be published in paperback by Picador in April

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