SAN FRANCISCO — Imagine your dream library of spiritual classics. What would it contain?

Start with a good Catholic Bible, of course. Perhaps add the works of Augustine, Aquinas, and a complete set of the Fathers of the Church. There would be individual classics: Butler’s Lives of the Saints, for example. G.K. Chesterton would be well represented.

Now let’s put them on an electronic device about the size and weight of a steno pad. Add in the ability to search by word or phrase, underline, clip and even annotate the text. Price some of the classics at a dollar or two, and make all of them available for instant download straight to the device.

This is what the new world of e-books in general — and the Amazon Kindle in particular — can offer, and there is more to come.

Kindle is like an iPod for books. It’s a compact, handheld device that stores and displays electronic books. Although there are other “e-readers” on the market, competitors such as the Sony PRS line, Samsung’s Papyrus, the Bookeen Cybook and others have yet to match the success and technological sophistication of the Kindle.

Many people find it difficult, and even unpleasant, to read for a long time on a conventional lighted screen. E-books break away from the computer and place the text in a small, portable format that is far easier on the eyes. The key component is the electrophoretic display, more commonly known as e-paper or electronic ink. Don’t think “computer screen.” Think “high-tech Etch A Sketch.” These devices use charged, dyed particles of titanium dioxide to “draw” text without the use of conventional displays or backlighting.

Amazon offers two styles of Kindle: The Kindle 2 ($300) has a 6-inch screen and can hold 1,500 books, while the Kindle DX ($490) has a 9.7-inch screen and can hold 3,500 texts. Although Amazon has already dropped the price of Kindle 2 from a high of $360, it remains expensive for many consumers. As the technology becomes cheaper and competition fiercer, further price drops are likely.

Catholic Kindle

The faith is well represented on Kindle, with a developing selection of older classics as well as items from major Catholic publishers. Ignatius Press has approximately 50 books available for Kindle, with numerous titles by Pope Benedict XVI. Said Ignatius founder Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, “We intend to have all our new titles available not only in Kindle format, but in a more generic e-book format so that readers can download Ignatius books electronically from Amazon (for the Kindle), MobiPocket (for computers and personal digital assistants), and from our own website. We are in the process of converting our backlist into electronic format also.”

Loyola Press currently has more than 70 titles available for the Kindle. “We want every new trade title we publish available as an e-book,” said Matthew Diener, manager for digital formats.

Loyola is also helping its customers explore some of the additional features of the Kindle. “Our Six Weeks With the Bible titles include a ‘Six Weeks With the Bible on Your Kindle’ guide,” said Diener. “This guide walks readers through how they can use highlighting, bookmarking and notes to mark significant Scripture text, tag pages with memorable content, and answer questions about the readings.”

Amy Welborn was surprised to find several of her books on the Kindle Catholic best-seller lists, among them A Catholic Woman’s Book of Days. “As an author, I’m all for e-books. Authors want their books to be read ... no matter what the format,” Welborn said. “I do see the format well suited to the book-length 365-day devotional. Some people who use such devotionals are very disciplined and use it every day in the same place at the same time. But if you’re busy and tend to work these things in when you can, having a devotional to put on an e-book reader that you have anyway seems like a good idea so you don’t have to haul another book around.”

For now, e-books aren’t replacing paper books — but they can supplement them. As Father Fessio noted about his own Ignatius Press, “We prefer books in the traditional print medium, especially the kinds of books we ordinarily publish — books that have lasting value and the beauty of whose outward form reflects, incarnates the nobility of the content. For those whose idea of a cozy living room is not a wall of bookshelves with one Kindle in the corner, or who like to touch real paper and see real ink when they relax to read, we intend to continue to publish ‘real books.’

“However, as the appearance and convenience of electronic books more closely approximate that of printed books, and as more readers will have grown up text messaging rather than talking to their friends, there will be — and there has been already — an increasing number of people who, for a variety of reasons, prefer the electronic format. We want to make what we publish available to them.”

Thomas L. McDonald writes

from Medford, New Jersey.