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World Traveler Review

Recently, as I was departing NY on a business trip, I realized that it would be six or more hours of waiting around the airport and sitting on the plane before I reached LA. I decided to stop into a bookshop and find something to help me pass the time. I picked up the first thing that seemed interesting. I had never heard of the author but the cover was great.

Once I settled into my seat on the plane and had read the first two pages, I knew that it would have been better off with the free newspapers scattered around the airport than to have paid 15 dollars for the trash I was now holding in my hands.

I immediately began to think of the waste of money, of the trees cut down to print such rubbish and the six long hours stretching before me with nothing more than the airline's magazine to read. At least, I thought, trying to look on the bright side, I was flying business class which meant a good meal and a comfortable seat to fall asleep in. Just then, I glanced over at my neighbor who had been working with what I thought was a PDA. He was a well-dressed businessman, sipping a gin and tonic and reading something on his elegant handheld. What caught my attention was that he was reading something in Russian. He noticed my interest and we discovered that we were both Russia, from the same part of the country, in fact. He shook my hand with a smile.

'Steve.' he said, introducing himself.

'Viktor.' I said.

'Not a very good choice, eh?' he asked me, giving a nod in the direction of the book I had thrown on the floor.

'No, not at all,' I answered. 'Another stupid mistake and now I have six hours to kill with nothing but this nonsense,' I said, pointing at the free magazine the airlines had provided. 'Are you going to Los Angeles on business?' I continued, trying at least to kill some time by getting to know my neighbor.

In a few short minutes I had found out that Steve was the head of a company which purchased used cars for resale in Russia. He visits auctions and car shows around the country and was, at this very moment, flying out to LA to visit a tuning company and then onto Las Vegas for a car show. After exchanging business cards, the conversation turned towards the device he held in his hands.

'What is that, some kind of new, super-thin Blackberry?' I asked. 'Are you reading a contract or something?'

Steve started to answer before I even finished my question.

'No, I'm reading Boris Akunin's new book, "The Diamond Chariot". And this isn't a computer, it's a new product made by a company called Ectaco, it's a jetBook, an e-book'.

I had known about Ectaco for a long time. This company produces electronic dictionaries and linguistic programs. I had even used one of them. But this was the first time in my life that I had ever seen such an object.

'And what can your e-book do?' I asked a little bit sarcastically (I hate it when I find myself even a bit behind the times).

'The options are simply endless,' Steve answered. 'How many book do you have at home?'

'Well, counting fiction and the things I use for my business, I would guess about a hundred - a hundred and fifty'.

'Well', Steve replied, 'I have 1,070 right here on my jetBook.'

'A thousand books!' I was stunned.

'Yes indeed, have a look for yourself,' Steve handed me his jetBook.

The device was exactly the size of an average paperback book but much, much thinner. It must only have weighed about 200 grams.

'1000 books in 200 grams,' I thought, looking at the screen. It had all different kinds of books shown with very good resolution: Detective and Action stories, Prose, Business, English books, Children's books, Poetry and so on. Steve touched a button near Detectives and I instantly saw a list of the most popular authors: Boris Akunin, Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Edgar Allen Poe… It was just incredible.

'You can scroll by pressing the buttons below and on the side,' he said.

Following his instructions and pressing the button, I saw the rest of the list, and on it the name of my favorite author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whom I have loved since childhood.

'How do you see the Conan Doyle books?' I asked.

'The complete works,' Steve boasted. 'I've always dreamed about having my own personal library. Let me show you how everything is arranged here. Look, there's nothing to it, it's as easy as falling off a log - easier, in fact. The list of books is here on the screen. There are 10 keys on the right side of the jetBook and you simply press the key next to the name of an author or the title of a book. Voila! There you have your text. To scroll you need to push two buttons at the bottom or press the trigger on the side.'

'Super,' I said, 'but don't your eyes get tired from reading such a screen? I can't read on my computer for very long.'

'That's because the light source in your computer monitor is behind the screen. Your eyes become tired very quickly by looking directly into the light. My ophthalmologist explained it to me. But the jetBook is read in reflected light, like any other book. I am saying this to you as a former engineer,' Steve explained. 'And everything is seen more clearly than on paper. Besides, you can change the size of the font. I have myopia while my wife can see the bricks on a house from two blocks away. So the six different font sizes help a lot.'

'Steve,' I asked just a bit cheekily, 'where did you get so many good books? You seem to every single detective book written in the past hundred years'.

'Aha,' Steve smiled. 'I have just as many other novels, classics, and even children's books so I can read a bedtime story to my kids at night'.

'So, where do all these books come from and how much did you pay for them?' I persisted.

Steve took a sip from his glass.

'Viktor, you probably won't believe it but everything is free. And there are more free books every week. I will never have to pay for another book for the rest of my life. It's like buying a cell phone for 300 dollars, and that's it, you don't ever have to pay for calls, EVER.'

'It's just not possible,' I told him.

'Yes,' Steve agreed. 'It will never happen with cell phones. But with books it does. When I bought this jetBook from Ectaco they gave me 120 books. And then they told me exactly where I could find more free of charge on the Internet. And in case I had any questions they gave me their telephone numbers or said that I could visit their website.'

'And how has it been?' I asked.

'Great, I've already downloaded about 800 books myself,' Steve answered finishing his gin. 'You probably won't believe it, but I have never read so much in my life. Now I don't waste time going to the bookshop. You can go and buy a book for 20 bucks which you've already read. Are they crooks, or what? They take, for example, Veller's "24 Hours," and republish it under another title, something like 'The Messenger from Pisa,' Steve swore under his breath. I've bought the same thing several times like an idiot. I could kill them!' he grumbled.

'So are you are good with computers?' was the next logical question I asked.

'Nothing of the kind, I'm good with cars and not so bad with motorcycles and motorboats. Like you I graduated from the automotive college in St. Petersburg. With computers I'm worse than useless, I'm all thumbs. But in this case there's nothing to know. You can be learn and see everything online at the Ectaco or Lingvobit sites.'

'Steve,' I asked slyly, 'you're probably tired and want to take a rest. Maybe while you sleep I can have a look through your jetBook?'

'All right,' Steve said. 'I've have to drive to Las Vegas after landing in LA and could use a few hours of shut-eye.'

With these words he covered himself with a blanket and closed his eyes. For me, the rest of flight passed by in an instant. The selection of books he had included the complete works of Bulgakov, Babel and all the world's best detective writers. It would have been enough to delight anyone. I just couldn't imagine how I had lived for so long without such a thing. Why did I still pay incredible amounts of money for books which, more often than not, weren't worth the paper they were printed on?

After a couple of hours Steve woke up. When he saw me with jetBook still in my hands, has asked:

'Well? Did you read everything?'

'No,' I answered truthfully. 'For the most part, I just looked at what do you have.'

'Aren't your eyes tired?'

'No, surprisingly, not at all. Tell me, what other options does it have?'

'Well,' Steve said slowly, 'did you see the audio books?'

'What?' I asked.

'You see, Victor, we have been trained to think that it is possible only to read books with our eyes, but if your hands and eyes are busy with other things, like driving a car or preparing supper, audio books can be really useful. They can make our daily chores more interesting and our drive to the office more entertaining. When I am being driven to auctions I read books, and on the way back, when I drive myself, I listen to audio books. You don't really read such books, and to be true, they have existed for a long time but were just called radio plays, and only those with a radio could listen to them. With jetBook it has become possible to carry around hundreds of audio books - they're the new sound of reading. He quoted someone: 'In short, "Life has become better, Comrades, Life has become more cheerful."'

'Yes,' I sighed, 'no more shelves filled with wasted paper, your library is always with you, everything is free, and what's more you have audio books and music. The forests are safe, there's no dust to make you sneeze…'

'Exactly,' said Steve. 'Kill a beaver, save a tree. Or at least download a book and save a tree.'

'So how much this miracle does cost?' I said, already fully intending to buy a jetBook no matter how much it cost, knowing, of course, that I would save plenty of money by not paying for regular books.

'I paid $400, but a couple of days ago Ectaco had a special sale, I got some more books for free and during the sale they were offering it for just $299.95. So I suggest you call them or check out their website.'

'As soon as we land,' I told him, copying the phone number from the screen of the jetBook.

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