I mentioned earlier that it’s been spring cleaning week here. Well, in amongst one of those random boxes of this and that, I unearthed this gem: my first-ever e-book reader!

Back when I purchased this puppy for $50 plus shipping off eBay (a fortune!), it was 2005 and I was living in New Zealand for a year, doing a graduate program. The town I lived in was the fourth-largest in the country, but to my jaded North American city girl eyes, it was hardly a bustling metropolis. There were cows five minutes up the road from me. There was a sheep farm across the road from the university—as in, you could stand in the university library, look out the window and see the sheep.

There was one local bookstore—a satellite of the Whitcoull’s chain—and it was tiny, more like a kiosk than a proper store. On one wall were 100 little numbered shelves comprising the top 100 books of all time, as voted on by the readers of a major newspaper. On another wall was a display of local authors, which was overwhelmingly dominated by a prolific picture book series for children about a spotted dog. There was some Harry Potter, some Stephen King, and a handful of other popular authors—and there was a boatload of stationary products. That was it!

As you can imagine, this was hardly an optimal book environment for a voracious reader like myself. New Zealand was a lovely country with much to recommend it, but the local retail book offerings were definitely not the selling point. And sure, there was plenty to do besides read. But to me, it seemed a book or two would be a natural companion for all those lovely beaches the country was known for. So … where to get some?

Enter my savior, Project Gutenberg. Free books! Thousands of them! But how to read them? I remembered that my sister had visited just before I left for my year away, and she had used my computer to download a file from some new-fangled site called Fictionwise onto her Palm device. So I went onto eBay in search of a Palm device of my own, and found the Palm m125 pictured above. It was recommended by many e-book fans because it had an SD card slot for side-loading books, and because it took regular batteries and therefore could be ‘charged’ on the go.

e-book reader

Joanna’s original Palm m125.

Check out the specs on this baby:

 Eight whole megs of memory!
 A ‘USB hotsync cradle’ that’s three times the size of the device!
 Comes with a CD-ROM full of software, including software for AOL!
 Can be customized with an array of colored faceplates!

Of course, these days, eight megs would be enough for about five books, but at the time, this was hot stuff. And OK, the Palm OS was a little pokey. (No multitasking.) And an ominously long ‘please wait…’ prompt appeared every time you tried to access the SD card. But no matter: The idea of being able to download books from the Internet and carry them around with me was magical. And, living as I did at the time with little more than 100 pre-chosen books and the exploits of a spotted dog, the bottomless pit of Project Gutenberg (and let’s be honest, a few Fictionwise borrows from big sis) was a treasure.

I re-read some childhood classics (Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan) on this baby. I discovered Cory Doctorow, whose books I still read. I finished the canon of the Bronte sisters, reading the ones I missed in university.

Eventually, I returned to North America and upgraded—to the eBookwise (backlit! What a difference!), and then to the Sony, then various Kindles, and finally my current Kobo Glo/iThing combo. But I have to admit, I got a bit of a thrill from booting up the little Palm and seeing it come to life again.

Many of us now read e-books mostly for the convenience factor. But for me, the e-book revolution was born out of necessity. Without it, there simply weren’t other books to be had. I’d have eventually discovered e-books anyway, in due time, had I not been away as I was. But I think that my early experience with them, as a book lifeline in a small town with few comparative options, has made me more sensitive to issues of accessibility than I might have otherwise been.

When I hear stories about readers being unable to obtain books because of DRM, or geographical restrictions, or any of the other impediments to free exchange that the current system imposes, it makes me angry. I think about people who are in situations like I was, where there truly wasn’t any other game in town, and I wonder what they’re supposed to do.

I’d like to see a book world where anybody, anywhere, can buy any book they’d like to, and can then download it onto whichever device they can manage. I’d like everyone to feel that same joy I felt, as a bibliophile, in discovering that virtual library of all the best books in the world, which would be open at any hour of the day, and would never, ever run out of titles.