A Wholly Remarkable Book

By: Matthew Battles
October 28, 2009

Kindle, iPhone: both are cool/irksome. But which device is the harbinger of Things to Come?

Pointing out that “the Kindle is more like a 7-Eleven than a book,” Jason Kottke urges us to think of reading, and not shopping, as the focal activity of an e-reader. In any ideal e-reader, he argues, blogs, magazines, web sites, PDFs, and email, along with books of all kinds, would be accessible and interpenetrating.

In a discussion of single-use devices at Snarkmarket, Tim Carmody suggests splitting the difference between e-readers and digital Swiss Army knives like the iPhone. “Tear down the walls between the ‘sep­a­rate’ func­tions on multi-function devices,” he writes. “It should feel like a device that has one func­tion — just that the func­tion is com­plex, mul­ti­lay­ered, inte­grated.”

Carmody and Kottke remind me of one of the greatest fictional single-use devices ever:

“What is it?” asked Arthur.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a sort of electronic book. It tells you everything you need to know about anything. That’s it’s job.”

Arthur turned it over nervously in his hands.

“I like the cover,” he said. “‘Don’t Panic.’ It’s the first helpful thing anybody’s said to me all day.”

“I’ll show you how it works,” said Ford. He snatched it from Arthur, who was still holding it as if it were a two-week-dead lark, and pulled it out of its cover.

“You press this button here, you see, and the screen lights up, giving you the index.”

A screen, about three inches by four, lit up and characters began to flicker across the surface…. Ford pressed a large red button at the bottom of the screen and words began to undulate across it. At the same time, the book began to speak the entry as well in a still, quiet, measured voice….

Fortunately for Ford Prefect, the Earth had just been destroyed by the Vogons, so he didn’t need to worry about getting a takedown notice from the Author’s Guild over the question of audio rights.

A notable, dark-horse entry in the race to create the RL version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide is the Wikireader. It’s a small gray-screened device with three buttons, two AAA batteries, and an SD card with the entire contents of Wikipedia loaded for browsing anywhere.


There’s something appealingly quixotic about the Wikireader. It’s less like the Hitchhiker’s Guide than one of those “20 Questions” games— more of a hardware stunt than a product with real commercial appeal. But at $99, it seems way too expensive. It should retail for something like $29 tops. And come with a towel.


Haw-Haw, Read-outs