In 1994, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Annie Proulx said "Nobody is going to sit down and read a book on a twitchy little screen. Ever."
Well, she didn’t figure on e-books, and she didn’t figure that twitchy little screens would be everywhere by the end of the 20th century. Laptops, mobile phones, MP3 players, e-book readers like Amazon’s Kindle, and now the DS make it possible, if not pleasurable, to read books in electronic format anywhere. Through the technology that Proulx was bagging back in the mid-nineties, it’s now possible to carry an entire library in your pocket.
E-text on CD and the internet has been around a while. It’s not uncommon for text books to be released in paper and electronic format, so students can choose which they’d prefer, or for an e-book version to augment the standard tome and provide multi-media support. There are several well known e-text libraries online. Sometimes the “books” are available to everyone free of charge, others are available to students only (often, they're set up by university libraries), and others are only available to locals – but the point is, they're there.
Copyright eventually expires, and it's possible to download PDF or other text versions of pre-twentieth and early-twentieth century books. They’re called classics. You were probably forced to study them at school or as part of your hangover-hazy English major at university. Now, to save you having to seek out free copies on any number of educational archives, HarperCollins publishers and Nintendo DS bring you 100 selected literary libations.
100 books is a lot, and the fact you can cart them about with you at all times is pretty cool. The thing is, how is it different to scouting these books out online and downloading them to your iPhone? Well… it’s not. I like that HarperCollins have saved me the hassle of going out and tracking down the books I want, and there does seem to be some sort of cohesion in the titles they’ve picked for the collection. With time and a bit of fastidious Googling, though, I could have done it nearly as well myself.
While it's not the same as reading a regular book (duh), the interface isn’t as troubling as one might think. I read the first few pages of Moby Dick without any squinting or botheration, and the adjustable text (although limited to Small or Large) should cater for the vast majority of peepers out there. To read, you turn the DS on its side so it opens – wow – like a book. When you want to turn the page, you can either slide the stylus along as you would a finger or thumb, or simply tap at the edge of the screen. You can jump ahead with scroll bar at the bottom of the touch screen, and tap the top to get a menu. From the menu you can fiddle with the settings, including background music, should you like a medieval soundtrack to weave about the terrifying brainchildren of Edgar Allen Poe as you read. You can also bookmark from here, which is handy, considering the small screens on the DS mean the developers have had to pack in the text, and novels that were once a few hundred pages are now more like a thousand.
You’ll get a fantastic selection of Shakespeare’s plays, the complete works of Jane Austin, adventure stories like Treasure Island and The Last of the Mohicans. Dickens is in there, two of the Brontes, Eliot, Twain, Henry James… you won’t get bored quickly, because there’s a book for every taste and mood. That is, unless you shun the classics.
Many people take ‘classics’ to be a genre of their own – but Austin isn't Lawrence, and Lawrence isn't London – so remember that and you can start to feel quite excited by your options. Having recently thought that I would like to revisit both Moby Dick and The Tempest, I am now able to shelve that trip to the library.
If you get a bit stuck for what to choose, there’s a nifty gadget built in that can help you out. Wise as they are, a friendly owl has been nominated to ask you a series of questions that decide on three books to be recommended to you. What kind of dream did you have last night? Scary? Happy? No dream at all? Who is the most fun to take shopping? A friend? A family member? No one? Questions like these, randomly selected each time you need the tool, will toss up a selection you might like. That, at least, is something most e-book readers aren't equipped to do.
As with Professor Kageyama's Math Training I'm finding it hard to score this one up. It's not really a game, so regular scores don't apply so much. I guess what I can say is whether I think the concept is useful: and I do. I estimate that enough of a cross section of DS owners will agree to make the venture worthwhile, and I would love to see other collections like it in the future. If enough publishers get on board, we could see fantasy collections, chick lit collections - and why not the Popular Penguins? They're cheap enough as it is, so let's get them packed together.
As far as I'm concerned, the 100 Classic Book Collection is a win. And with 10 extras available for download, it will go on winning a while yet.