While the jury is still out on such issues, there is certainly one realm in which the e-book fills a much-needed role: in bringing books back into availability when their original publishers have decided to allow the title to fall out of print. And no such book is more welcome here than John Wilson's North With Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames, which was first reviewed in these virtual pages nearly eleven years ago here. For those who can't readily lay hand on a used copy of the lovely Fitzhenry and Whiteside hardcover, there is an easy alternative, as Wilson's novel is now available via Smashwords, a site which includes both books original to the e-book format as well as out of print books whose rights have reverted to their authors. Smashwords is the friendliest of sites, offering previews and downloads in just about every e-book format around, and its authors enjoy a robust royalty from downloads.
All of which got me to wondering what other Arctic books of note might be available in similar formats. Amazon's Kindle store has a variety of free classics, among them Sherard Osborn's Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal. A mere 99 cents brings you Best's voyages of Frobisher, Back's narrative of his voyage aboard HMS Terror, or Nansen's Farthest North. Recent trade books, such as Andrew Lambert's The Gates of Hell, go for $12-$15. There are a quite a few hard-to-find books (in their physical format at least) that can be had instantly, such as Peter Cappelotti's By Airship to the North Pole, or Robert Edric's novel The Broken Lands. At the high end, you can even get the complete text of Mark Nutall's three-volume Encyclopedia of the Arctic electronically for a mere $364.00 (not too bad, perhaps, when one considers that "hard" copies go for $800+ on abebooks).
There are, of course, a host of polar classics available as free Google books, though these may not necessarily offer the clearest display, or have meaningful search functionality. Yet despite the wealth which beckons, seemingly free or at minimal cost, for me there will never be a substitute for the actual, physical books. My own library includes first editions by Franklin, Elisha Kent Kane, William Edward Parry, and a host of more recent books. Their look on the shelves, their feel in the hand, their ease on the eye are, and always will be, incomparable. Nevertheless, for those who are seeking a quick upload of a hard-to-find book, or planning a vacation where the hunger of reading is great and space is at a premium, the array of e-books in this area is vast, and steadily growing. One wonders, as did Ted Betts, whether some some sort of 19th-century "Kindle for Sir John Franklin" might, at least, have saved a good deal of room in the stores on a certain polar voyage.