V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Electronic Ink

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers February, 2009.

I find comfort in the esthetic of a bookcase fully lined with Pulitzer Prize winning fiction, cookbooks, chick lit and old English classics.

I keep my shelves stacked with at least a handful of unread novels, otherwise I feel as though I've run out of milk or bread -- the feeling of being short on something, the need to replenish.

While I loathe newsprint ink on my fingers, I love the crisp, brittle sound of newspaper pages being turned.

But the publishing industry is entering a new chapter, one that could go paperless and revolutionize the way we read.

The company that has blazed the paper trail in all this is E Ink, a spinoff company of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its technology, electronic ink, is used in e-books which can store hundreds of book titles, magazines and newspapers in a portable device.

"If you can get lost in a story, it doesn't matter if it's electronic or paper," said Rita Toews, the Winnipeg woman behind the recently launched site ebookweek.com. Toews is also author of Body Traffic, shortlisted for the Margaret Laurence Book Award.

Unlike the LCD screen, E Ink's technology enables the electronic reader to replicate the look and feel of a printed book: Displays have the visual appeal of ink-on-paper and use no backlight so that screens can be viewed under almost any lighting condition, including direct sunlight, all the while using little power. Typically, one battery charge of four hours can power 7,500 continuous page turns.

While the notion of e-readers may take the poetry out of curling into bed with a good book, Toews' site makes a compelling environmental argument for altering our reading behaviour.

In his 2003 thesis, University of Michigan student Greg Kozak studied the life-cycle assessment of paper books versus e-books. He found that a paper book created four times the greenhouse gas emissions of an e-book reader.

Print books needed three times more raw materials and 78 times more water consumption than e-books.

In another study out of the University of Berkeley, reading a newspaper electronically released 32-140 times less CO2 and used 27 times less water.

In the U.S., where e-reader sales have taken off, customers are able to download books, magazines and major daily newspapers such as USA Today. It's a future the newspaper industry is eyeing with careful suspicion -- online readership has already endangered the print format, putting thousands of traditional newspaper men and women out of work.

But French newspaper Les Echos has been offering its content on the e-reader iRex iLiad since 2007. Stories are delivered wirelessly and updated every hour. Cost for the subscription and the unit is around $600 Cdn.

While newspaper subscription is not yet available on the only ebook in Canada, the Sony Reader Digital Book, company spokeswoman Candice Hayman said a major Canadian newspaper, which she declined to identify, recently expressed interest in the device.

The Sony reader launched last April in Canada and retails for $299. The cost of downloading books, however, is a fraction of its hardcopy edition, averaging about $10.

Meanwhile, Esquire published its 75th edition to much fanfare last October, the first magazine to use electronic ink on its cover. An animated cover flashed the words "The 21st Century Begins Now" on magazine stands, stealing the attention from the static images of its lifeless competitors.

"If we look at the publishing industry, the content is readable but not changeable," said E Ink spokesman Sriram Peruvemba from Cambridge, Mass.

"Electronic format is changeable but not readable. We tried to combine the two and get the best of both worlds."

For those still resistant to the idea, Toews points that the paperback novel was snubbed by the literary elite when it emerged in the 1930s. But it became popular during the war, allowing troops to carry them in their backpocket and is now a legitimate form of publishing.

But is the portable e-book just another electronic device we have to carry in addition to our cumbersome cache of iPhones, BlackBerrys and cellphones on which e-newspapers can also be read?

Not for the business traveller who is able to download several books in one easy-reading device, Peruvemba said, or the environmentally conscious, who can read for hours without depleting their laptop or BlackBerry batteries.

For instance, on a five-hour flight from Boston to Las Vegas, Peruvemba read a business magazine and national newspaper cover to cover, and brushed off a few more chapters from his book, Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse.

"Paper's going to become more of a luxury," he said. "My daughter planted a sapling in school, but it will take 10 years for the sapling to grow. In the next 20 minutes you could change your reading behaviour, read an e-book and save a tree."

International Read an E-Book Week is March 8-14.



12 -- Number of trees to produce one tonne of printing paper.

10 -- Number of people per year a mature tree produces oxygen for in a single season.

5% -- Percentage of paper used in the book industry that is recycled.

35% -- Percentage of books printed that are returned to publishers and end up in landfills.

75,000 -- Amount of trees used to produce one edition of the Sunday New York Times.

Website Builder