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(Cheryl Carlin)

Turn the Page

Electronic books may soon vie with library cards for space in your pocket

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I usually travel by train to work as I go, and over time I've developed several methods of discouraging other, supposedly paying passengers from sitting beside me. A well-timed sneeze. A well-placed, crumpled tissue. A cell phone conversation that laments lingering flu-like symptoms. A sleeping head that conveniently, and repeatedly, nods off in the direction of, oh, right about where their shoulder would be.

These acts are not entirely selfish; I often use the empty seat to keep open a book I'm referencing as I type. (All right, they're pretty selfish.) But what if I could keep all the books I needed on a handheld device that didn't lose power by Baltimore's Penn Station? When can I retire my antisocial repertoire and start judging books, instead of people, by their covers?

Electronic book readers, such as the Reader, made by Sony, or the Kindle, by Amazon, require electronic ink. A thin transistor in the device contains a series of rows and columns that create a matrix of pixels—about 170 per inch, or roughly as many as in newspaper print. Each pixel contains a microcapsule filled with black and white pigment. Positive or negative charges delivered to the pixels force either the white or black pigments to the capsule surface, creating the appearance of words, images or empty space.

Computers and other electronic devices that display text use power continuously. Although we're not aware of them, scan rates run across these screens all the time. (That's why we see those pulsing, horizontal blips when computer monitors are shown on television.) Electronic readers, on the other hand, conserve power by locking these pigments in place until the screen is updated—or, if you prefer, until the page is turned.

Your brain picks up these constant movements in a computer screen, even if your eyes don't. Research has shown that this subconscious awareness has a negative impact on how you code what you're reading on the computer screen. So, in addition to saving power, electronic readers do a better job than computer screens of replicating the mental experience of following a printed page.

Modern books, of course, are printed from electronic documents, and initiatives such as Project Gutenberg have scanned thousands of historical texts, giving electronic books a wide potential library. Though most books are entirely in black and white, some, such as textbooks, have colorful text or graphics, which electronic readers can recreate using a basic red-green-blue filter on top of the black and white pixel matrix. (Note to self: Pixel Matrix is a good name for a band.)

Right now an electronic book reader scrolls to a new page in about half a second. Down the line, however, page-turns will occur fast enough for electronic books to incorporate video elements: medical textbooks with a short clip on how the heart pumps blood, or electronic newspapers with weather reports that show moving clouds, or a snippet of the new music video from that hit band Pixel Matrix.

A frequent complaint of electronic readers is that they abandon the warm, tactile element of reading in favor of the cold, sterile feel of a Blackberry. But the stable images created by electronic ink, and the ruggedness of the microcapsules, make flexible e-books a distinct possibility. You might not be able to dog-ear your favorite page, but electronic books with fold-out screens that bend inward have already reached trial phases, and could soon reach the market.

And with all the luggage space freed up by an electronic book, yes, I think I might even fit my bag beneath the seat in front of me. Thanks for asking, Mr. Conductor.

The real wishful thinker behind this column was David Jackson of E Ink, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who predicts that wide-scale use of rugged, flexible-screen electronic books is about five years away.

Have an idea that should be thought about wishfully? Email it to wishful.smithsonian@gmail.com

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