The Sony Reader is a handheld device that allows you to read books in electronic, or digital, form. Recently launched in the UK (price £199), it comes in a brown leather case and has the same dimensions as a slim paperback. For a cutting-edge gizmo it has surprisingly few buttons, and its understated brushed-steel finish gives it a rather retro feel.
The other such machine currently available is iRex's iLiad (price £399). Amazon's version, the Kindle, came out in the US last year, and is supposedly heading to Europe soon. These are early days for the e-reader; but that doesn't mean it isn't already being widely discussed. Even more than most new technologies, e-readers split the world into those who think they are fun, exciting and potentially revolutionary, and those who view them with near apocalyptic dread.
Books are often seen as one of civilisation's crowning achievements. To appreciate the esteem in which they are held, just consider that, over the centuries, those who have wanted to destroy books have generally been some of the nastiest, meanest people around. Now Amazon and Sony appear to be joining this company.
After testing the Sony Reader the first thing I'd say is that, incredibly annoyingly, it is not compatible with Apple software, so I had to hook it up via a friend's PC (e-readers, like iPods, have to be used with a computer). But that aside, it is extremely user-friendly. A menu allows you to choose from your "library" of alphabetically arranged books, and once in a particular book you move through the "pages" using a simple back and forward key. The generously proportioned screen is backlit, which means that, unlike with a computer, there is almost no glare.
A dimension of tactility and personality is, it is true, missing from the experience. You don't get the feel of the pages or the smell of the paper (although the cold steel is quite pleasing). Nor do you get the sense of the book as an individual object, with its own appearance and accumulated creases and markings. But against these losses has to be offset an overwhelming advantage: the sheer convenience, in a world of ever-increasing mobility, of not having to lug books around with you but having them always readily at hand in a single object.
Besides, e-readers do something else, which I think may prove even more important. By stripping books of the paraphernalia of pages, spine, cover and so on, they focus attention on the text. Embarking on George Eliot's Middlemarch, I felt, in a way I never have done previously, almost as if I were inside Eliot's (somewhat cumbersome) prose. I realised that the physicality of the traditional book actually creates a barrier of sorts between the reader and the words, which is absent with an e-book. As a result, the text becomes more, not less, important. And in time this may mean that e-readers will make people read more attentively and write better, too. If this is the case, then the death of the traditional book will be a small price to pay.
William Skidelsky is books editor of the Observer