The late, great Jim Baen used to talk about “ludic readers” and how they would transform his business of book publishing. He used the term to distinguish something that people would use to read for fun, rather than things they were paid to read (like technical manuals, 10-K filings, etc.).

I always thought it was a silly name. “Ludic” means “playful” or “pleasurable”, but it sounds like a cross between “Luddite” and “ludicrous.” Jim failed the name game.

But, fundamentally, he was right. We now have devices that hundreds of thousands (soon to be millions) of people are using for pleasure reading. But I don’t think Jim ever imagined that his “ludic reader” would be a cellphone!

I’ve always been generally supportive of eBooks. I downloaded and read about twenty novels or book-length story collections on my Palm Treo. It was a marginal experience at best. I don’t know how to get a digital screenshot off a Treo, and I no longer care enough to learn, so here’s a digital camera photo:


It’s hard to get things to scale on the Web, since everyone has a different screen/browser configuration. But that’s a 320×320 pixel screen, 2.6″ diagonally. No anti-aliasing. Sans-serif typeface. Pretty ugly, to be honest.

The value was always having several books in my pocket, so I always had something interesting to read during idle time. But, given the choice between a eBook and even a crappy water-stained paperback, I’d would have chosen the dead-tree version.

That’s changed.

Like everyone else, I’ve abandoned the moribund Palm platform (which I used to love!) and switched to the iPhone. I’ve now read four novels and several short stories on its gorgeous 320×480 pixel screen. And, at least for the most recent volume, it was a better experience than the dead-tree version!

I bought a copy of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem the day it came out. Stephenson is just one hell of a writer, but he writes big sprawling books. (Think James Michener on really good acid.) Anathem is a big book… 937 pages. It’s an intimidating amount of weight. And not something I’m going to toss into my briefcase “just in case”… it bulkier than my laptop, and weighs more than a MacBook Air!

So, after paying full price for the dead-tree version, I turned around and paid another ten bucks for the eBook version at Fictionwise.com. There’s a great eReader application for the iPhone that links to Fictionwise… and, although I’m philosophically opposed to DRM for books, I caved in this instance.

It’s gorgeous.

Here are some screen shots. Anti-aliased text at 320×480 is clear enough to read effortlessly for hours. You can choose your typeface and size (this is Georgia, “large-ish”). And note how the bold, italics, smallcaps, and oddball characters (like “Sæcular”) come through unmolested.


You can have simple diagrams:


And if you like landscape orientation better, just rotate your iPhone.

I’m scaling down the iPhone screenshots to approximate the actual screen size (at least on my screen/browser combination; your mileage may vary), but here’s some of the 163dpi text shown at 72dpi:


Like I said, gorgeous. Anti-aliased, sufficiently high-resolution to draw the serifs properly, high-contrast, bright backlighting… I know technology will continue to improve, but this is Good Enough™.

As a comparison, here are the two phones side by side—click on the image to see actual size:


Yes, the iPhone screen really is that much brighter and whiter than the Treo screen!

Ideally, I’d have a Kindle in the photograph. I’ve played with a Kindle, and I’m not impressed. I like the wireless downloads from the Amazon.com store… but I don’t like the restrictive DRM, I don’t like the typefaces, I don’t like the reverse-video pageturns, and—most important—I don’t want to carry yet another battery-operated device that needs care, feeding, and a charging cable.

Short of SCUBA-diving, my iPhone is going to be with me wherever I go. It’s not another device to carry, and I will already have made arrangements to keep it charged.

Ubiquity is important. Which, screen technology aside, brings us to why reading Anathem as a sequence of 3338 iPhone screens was better than reading 937 paper pages: I had it with me. I was able to grab a bit during lunch, a bit more while waiting at the doctor’s office, etc. Which means I read it faster and in more digestible chunks. And, honestly, Stephenson occasionally needs some digesting! Sample:

Proc: A late Praxic Age metatheorician, the standard-bearer in his age of the theorical lineage traceable to the Sphenics, and the progenitor of all orders that trace their descent to the Syntactic (as opposed to Semantic) Faculties of the early post-Reconstitution maths. Contrast with Halikaarn.

Bozhe moi! Eto topor v moyei golove!

I have to wonder… most of the walls in my house look like this:


Cissa and I own over 5000 books; many of them are cataloged here. They’re a big part of the physical fabric of our lives. What will it be like when our books are just patterns of bits, stored on flash RAM and backed up to the cloud?

Anyhow: I have three eBook readers on my iPhone: Stanza, eReader, and BookZ; there are others. Download one of them; heck, download them all, they’re either cheap or free!

(For some reason, Mobipocket totally missed the iPhone game. Perhaps being owned by Amazon.com, they didn’t want to participate in killing the Kindle? Luckily, I only bought non-DRM Mobi files on my Palm, and Stanza reads those nicely.)

Then download some free books from the Baen Free Library, or the Gutenberg Project. Or buy a new release at eReader.com.

And try it! Within a dozen pages, I guarantee that you’ll have forgotten that you’re reading a book on your cellphone. You’ll just be reading a book. Which is, at the end, exactly as it should be.


  1. Great article!
    I have pretty much the same experience–from the good old palm to the iphone.
    Used to have a tapwave zodiac–which I think is the best pda for reading. The screen is slightly larger than the iphone–same resolution and the backlight is just right.
    The treo’s screen is too small for reading IMHO
    Now the iphone is great–but still the backlight is a bit too bright. Nevertheless it’s still going to be one of the most popular reading device in the world~

  2. I’ve always been generally supportive of eBooks. I downloaded and read about twenty novels or book-length story collections on my Palm Treo. It was a marginal experience at best.