From one of the curious byways of publishing history . . .
E-books may be new, but the impulse behind them certainly is not, as this story about a 1937 invention called the Penguincubator illustrates. As the story explains, Sir Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, was motivated to create a vending machine for paperback books by his frustration with the limited availability of reading material while traveling:
"After a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon, he found himself on a platform at Exeter station searching its bookstall for something to read on his journey back to London, but discovered only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels.
"Appalled by the selection on offer, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores."
Today, of course, we have the Kindle, with its instant download capability, for just such moments. And not just the Kindle: My wife Mary-Jo will happily tell you about downloading books to her iPhone when she finds herself in an airport without a good novel to read. It's true that the tiny screen only has room for 75 words or so at a time, but she has had no trouble reading entire books that way. And the selection of books available is a little more varied than that offered by the Penguincubator!