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Barnes & Noble Leaps Into E-Books

Barnes & Noble wants to go after the Kindle, and they're using a color touchscreen to do it. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As many of you know, I have a Kindle, and it's not an exaggeration to say that it has, in a very short time, wildly increased the amount of reading that I do. I had wandered away from reading for pleasure, but e-books have persuaded me that a good part of the reason that happened is that I don't like accumulating physical books (which makes me, I know, the opposite of many of you). When I was reading The Lost Symbol, I was happy, frankly, that when it was over, I wasn't going to have a 500-page book that I'd have to (1) store; (2) sell; (3) recycle; (4) give away; or (5) burn. Better for the environment, better for my apartment.

(In fact, however, I suspect that the real reason is the ability to make impulse book purchases from home. "Hear about interesting book; press button." This is a good way to go broke and read a lot.)

There are other e-readers on the market from places like Sony, but the big dog has been the Kindle — until yesterday, when (as you may have heard on Morning Edition, Barnes & Noble jumped into the fray with the Nook, a close cousin of the Kindle with what look like a couple of advantages and a couple of disadvantages.

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A closer look, after the jump.

I should stress that I have not held a Nook in my hands, and until I held a Kindle and read it, I didn't really get that, so I'm certainly not reviewing it — just looking at some basic differences.

The big thing they're pushing with the Nook is the touchscreen. At the bottom, below the reading panel, there's a small touchscreen you can use to navigate through the books in your library. I will say: the Kindle's text-based library listing and menu system is pretty quaint, compared to the other gadgets I use in a typical day. Because I'm using it to read books, it always seems oddly appropriate to me that it's a little retro, but if I could instantaneously add this feature, I surely would.

But the more interesting change is the sharing option. On the Nook, you can lend a book to a friend for two weeks electronically. In other words, you can share your electronic books with friends for up to two weeks. Of course, you have to know someone else who wants to read an electronic book, which may limit your options if your friends are still paper enthusiasts, as most of mine are. But they don't have to be Nook users as of the end of November — you'll be able to share with people who want to read on their iPhones or Blackberries or PCs or Macs, as well. It's potentially a powerful feature, as one of the only things I miss about paper books is that I can't hand them off to friends.

Barnes & Noble boasts more than a million available e-books (though half of those, it appears, are free books, so it's hard to compare). Because I love anecdotal evidence, I flipped through the Kindle books I'm reading at the moment, and they were all available for the same price I paid at Amazon.

On the other hand, it doesn't have text-to-speech at all. It's true that Amazon has had to pull back on text-to-speech on the basis of (very silly) fears that it will interfere with authors' ability to sell audiobooks, but it's still available on lots of books, and that technology has its place. Designing your device not to have the capability at all seems short-sighted to me, as well as possibly a disservice to people with disabilities.

Barnes & Noble, interestingly, also passed up the improvement that many people who see my Kindle assume it "needs" most: a backlight. They're shocked that it doesn't function in the dark, because they're thinking of phones and computers and other lit screens. It always takes a while to explain that the screen is like that for a reason; that it won't work in the dark, but it also won't give you eyestrain and it honestly feels like reading a paper page — more so than you'd ever suspect until you try one. That this new competitor also doesn't have a backlight suggests to me that there is, indeed, no easy way to incorporate one without compromising elsewhere.

My guess is that the biggest challenge is going to be getting people out of the habit of buying their online books at Amazon, but if there's a name as familiar as Amazon, it's probably Barnes & Noble — maybe not in this arena, but in general. They're using their brick-and-mortar stores as places to try out the Nook, and I'm not sure that's all that likely to be a big factor, but there are still people who would rather deal with a vendor that at least has a physical location, should you find that you need one.

There's an enthusiastic review at PC World arguing that this may be the device to push e-readers over the line to mainstream devices rather than things that just a few weirdos (like me) own. I hope so. More reading is a good thing — and I say that as a person most commonly accused of watching way too much television.