by Marty Demarest

Technically, it's a little late to start your summer reading. But you can still start to read technologically. Electronic books, or ebooks, are a persistent dream of companies that want to make people's computers even more useful (i.e., necessary) and enjoyable (i.e., profitable). Even if they were ideally realized, they wouldn't likely come close to hurting the book world. But for brave and adventurous readers, or maybe just people who are looking to get a little more pleasure out of their computers, ebooks have recently become surprisingly good ways to read.

Currently, there are a couple of free programs that attempt to give readers a passable alternative to the printed page. The newest editions of Adobe's Reader and Microsoft's Reader both feature texts presented in pleasant-to-read fonts, laid out with wide margins across a portrait-oriented page. They can scale the pages to different sizes, so that the book looks equally good on a PDA and a desktop computer. Being computer-based, they even illuminate themselves.

Right now, classics make up the bulk of etexts available. One reason for this is simply that so many classics have passed into the public domain. Microsoft's Reader page catalogs hundreds of free Reader ebooks that are available and formatted. This means that in no time at all, the complete works of Shakespeare, Plato, and Jane Austen can be enjoyed without a commitment of shelf space, physical resources or cash.

Modern books, both fiction and nonfiction, are available as well. The selection is still somewhat limited, even at Barnes & amp; Noble and Amazon's Web sites, and you're more likely to find major releases than obscure favorites. Nevertheless, the prices are often $10-$15 less than for new hardbacks. And for a few months, Microsoft is giving away three free books a week as a promotion for the new edition of Reader. (

Still, it's going to be a while before ebooks go mainstream. There are dedicated ebook readers, but they're not really worth the money. A good laptop is much better. But you'll still need software, expensive hardware and electricity. And many publishers are waiting, scared off by the file sharing that's crippled the recording industry and is now threatening film. The page may have turned, but the current chapter is hardly over.

Publication date: 08/28/03

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