Clive James looks across the crowded Soho restaurant. His eyes briefly scan mine, but quickly return to the vast book he is furtively reading. The tome, which I can't quite identify, covers about a quarter of the table. It's not your average airport novel, but probably a collection of essays by Proust or some such esoteric volume.
The Antipodean aesthete can't see what I'm reading, which is rather a shame because I'm actually carrying around thousands more pages than him and many more books. And I think he'd probably find it incredibly useful, judging by the sheer size of the book he's wading through.
On my table, surrounded by a steaming capuccino, a greasy roll and a rather gross doughnut, is the very latest in portable e-book readers - the Rocket eBook, conceived by Silicon Valley based techno-boutique, Nuvomedia.
I've been getting to know the only eBook in the UK for a few hours now, courtesy of BOL.com, which will be distributing it when it hits UK shelves early next spring. Already launched in the US and Germany, the eBook and several similar rivals have taken off in a big way.
Words on the web
Websites are also springing up from which keen users can download thousands of texts for a fee, and thousands more for free. Emperor of horror Stephen King recently gave the movement his seal of approval by releasing Riding the Bullet, his latest tale, in an electronic format first.
But I wanted to see if the device was a credible alternative to good old fashioned paper, cardboard, ink and glue.
As Clive James gathered his weighty masterpiece into what looked like a tatty Sainsbury's bag, paid his bill and pottered off down the road, I was struck by the first advantage of the electronic format.
You can download about 90 novels, guidebooks or whatever by hooking the device up to a PC and storing them on the eBook's 32Mb hard disk. Because the volumes are stored as simple text documents, they are typically only about half a megabyte in size.
By touching the screen, you can use the mini-browser to place a bookmark in one book, then quickly open another, scrolling automatically to where you left off last time. So, no more tatty carrier bags full of dog-eared books.
But what exactly is the Rocket eBook? It basically has an oblong LCD-type black and white screen - about the same size as a paperback - and comes with a battery pack at the rear and a pen holder enclosed inside for choosing and switching around the icons which range along the edge of the screen.
At one end is a small toggle on/off switch. On the front face, around the edge, are two buttons which are used to 'turn' the page. A touch sensitive screen enables you to change the page view in an instant. You can choose to read it in portrait or landscape style, the latter being useful when lying the eBook on a table and reading hands-free. If you're ambidextrous like me, you can even switch reading hands and hold the thing in either hand.
The eBook is bigger than a PalmPilot, a Cassiopeia or other personal digital assistant (PDA) device, but the larger screen makes it easier to read a page of decent sized text without squinting. And on the subject of squinting, it could become a thing of the past because at a touch of the screen you can swiftly increase or embolden the type face.
According to Rob Nichols, BOL.com's director of books, Nuvomedia sees itself as company of developers rather than mass market manufacturers, but it has just concluded a deal with French giant Thomson which could change all that.
"As a result of that deal, we anticipate there will be mass market devices available in the UK in early 2001. More features are planned, such as a built-in MP3 player and the ability to play Wav files. The hard disk size, battery life [currently 40 hours] and screen technology could all change in the move to mass production," he explained.
But what will early adopters be able to read on an e-book? "At the moment, there are three and a half thousand copyright protected books available on US sites, which you pay [slightly less than the price of a real book] to download over the net to your PC at home," said Nichols.
"These are things like the latest Stephen King and also guide books such as Fodors. There are also another two and a half thousand books for free - out of copyright, older things like Alice in Wonderland or Heart of Darkness by Conrad," he added.
The real thing
And there's the rub. As I rooted around the musty bookshops of Charing Cross Road, one manager snorted with derision when I mentioned the number of books available to download.
Jim Richardson, of the Quinto bookshop, said: "That's nothing - we have a fresh stock of 20,000 books coming in next week alone. If people merely want information, they can get it on the net, but people will never stop collecting books."
He handed me a pristine copy of Joe Orton's diaries, edited by John Lahr. "Look at this - it's beautiful. Books are becoming more and more like collectors' items, material possessions. People want to own the book."
But Nichols retorted that big deals with US publishers would counter the current lack of choice. "One hundred US publishers have just signed up to make more texts available. Sites like Barnes & Noble and Powells are now putting up lots of e-books."
But what advantage is there to buying an eBook instead of simply downloading text from the web and using a PalmPilot to read them? The main reason, apart from the larger size of the eBook's screen, is price. BOL.com plans to sell it for about £99.00 in the UK, which sounds like a good deal compared to smaller, feature-rich PDAs.
Which is just as well because the device was given only a qualified thumbs up by people I showed it to on the streets of London last week. The most common complaint was weight. Although it initially felt smooth and easy to hold, after carrying it around Soho and Charing Cross Road for three hours, I felt that my arms were stretching from the weight.
Ian Shipley has an art bookshop just a few doors away from Quinto. "It's definitely too heavy. It's not really much of an experience, but there's always an interim stage to new technology. But books are about more than pages of text. Collectors look at the spine, check the smell, the look of the thing. It's about touching. Older books, perhaps on rag based paper or cotton, are extraordinary," he said.
He was positive about the future of digital texts, however. "I'd love to have a really obscure text downloaded onto my printer at home, complete with all the eccentricities," he said. "The British Library has a vast collection of rare books. They should get them all scanned and make them available as e-books."
There are other, more unexpected bounties emerging from the e-book movement both in the US and the UK, however. Online Originals, Toby Press and Citron Publishing in the UK are all trying to find new ways of releasing texts, and it's starting to change the way publishers find writers, according to Nichols.
"E-publishers are making writers available to the public who may not have been published before. Some of these people are then being picked up by mainstream publishers. It's becoming a bit like punk music in the 1980s," he said.
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