Are You Ready to Take the E-Book Plunge?

More companies launching E-readers; many public libraries now offer digital book services.

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Do you see yourself ever reading books and periodicals electronically—on a computer screen or hand-held device? The movement of paper-based printed materials to the digital world is gathering steam. Seniors will need to decide whether they have the desire and aptitude to embrace these new tools.

[See New Technologies Require New Learning.] Barnes & Noble is the latest entrant into the E-book reader field with its portable "nook" reader, which can wirelessly download books, newspapers, and magazines. It joins Amazon's successful Kindle, which also has wireless capability. Sony's Reader, the third major vendor, must be connected to a computer to download books. Devices from all three companies use low-energy digital "ink" that gives them long battery life, but all also suffer from the genre's biggest weakness—there is no backlighting, so you can't read in a dark room.

E-books also can be downloaded to other "smart" hand-held devices and phones. Expect more offerings to follow, and more catchy names like "nook." Everyone is searching for whatever passes for a buzz factor. And while displaying text on a small screen may not cause your pulse to race, E-readers will increasingly also be able to download and play audiobooks and music files.

Public libraries are hopping on the E-book bandwagon as well. More than 5,000 libraries around the country are offering electronic books, according to published reports. Unlike printed books, the E-books never need be lugged home or returned to the library, and generally can be accessed whenever and wherever you want. As someone worried about downsizing and already having too many books in the house, the prospect of not adding to household clutter is very appealing.

[See Paralyzed by Your Possessions? Read On.]

While converting to the E-book world may be daunting, you can approach it in small steps. Before laying out money ($200 to $300) for one of the dedicated E-reader products, you can find out for free whether or not you can stand reading a book on a screen. Adobe Digital Editions provides E-book management and display tools.

Digital Editions is free and can be downloaded and used on your personal computer. The instructions are clear and easy to follow. You probably want to get a free identification number from Adobe before you install the Digital Editions software—you'll see links to this process from the Digital Edition download screen. The ID will provide you more flexibility in using the tools, especially when you get adventuresome and learn how to download files to an iPod or other hand-held device. Adobe also provides a few free books available for downloading, so you can use this service to see what the pages look like on your computer monitor.

The next step, still without spending money, is to find a public library that has E-book services. Many libraries get their E-book services from two vendors— Overdrive and NetLibrary. OverDrive has a ZIP code finder that will show you the nearest libraries using its system. My town library, for example, does not yet offer these services, but I did see a participating library in an adjacent county. I got a library card from its nearest branch and now I can borrow E-books online through its service. NetLibrary is building an online search tool for participating libraries, the company says. Both websites have helpful user-directed tutorials and guides.

E-books from libraries may be compatible with devices other than your personal computer. My Sony Reader, for example, loses the "cool" contest in both appearance and its lack of wireless capability. But it will accept downloads of E-books from my library, which is not the case with the proprietary format used by Kindle. In addition to printed books, libraries may also offer audiobooks, and these often may be downloaded to an MP3 player and even shared with friends. And, again, all of this is free. (Note: Even if you have a slow Internet connection, E-books download quickly.)

If you become an E-book convert and enjoy reading online, then you might be a candidate for a portable E-reader. If so, maybe they'll have come up with a backlight feature by then.

[See Note to Brain: Get Down and Give Me 50!]