The sort of people who use book lights—book lighters, if you will—are not to be trusted. The device itself, remember, is intended for surreptitious reading. If these people have nothing to hide, why do they sneak off to a dark corner with their tiny, battery-operated lights? Why do they continue to read after their spouses have gone to sleep? What, exactly, are these book lighters planning?
I'm not sure, but I'm pretty sure it's something.
It is with these suspicions in mind that I set out to discover which of these seemingly benign gadgets is best (and by "best" I mean "most threatening to our democracy"). It wasn't easy. Night after night, I sequestered myself in a darkened room with a stack of books and a bag of triple-A batteries. I tried them on books of varying sizes, from slim paperbacks to weighty hardcover tomes. I read until my eyes grew tired or my brain was full, whichever came first. I carried the book lights with me on airplanes. I waited until my wife was asleep, and then I quietly switched them on. Yes, it made me feel dirty. But one must become one with the book lighters in order to truly understand them.
Shine On (10 possible points): Light quality is important. Some lights are too bright, or uneven, or unpleasant. Points were awarded for a gentle, even light; points were docked for lights that are too harsh, too dim, or don't illuminate the entire page.
Portability (10 possible points): If it doesn't slip easily into my backpack, or seems like it would break if jostled, then I'm not interested.
The Sleeping-Spouse Factor (10 possible points): Stray light that might awaken a significant other, thereby leading to interpersonal strife, will not be tolerated. The light should shine on the page, nowhere else.
Design/Ease of Use (10 possible points): The buttons should be convenient, the batteries easy to replace, and it should generally be nonannoying to operate. Bonus points if it looks cool.
Here are the results, from dim to bright:
Small Gooseneck Reading Light, $1.95 When you pay $2 for a book light—or anything, for that matter—you don't expect much. By that standard, this book light is a huge success because it delivers very, very little.
For starters, the light is harsh, uneven, and fails to fully illuminate the page. The neck is wobbly and irritating. The on-off switch is strangely sharp, causing pain each time you use it. And it broke after an hour or so.
If you really can't afford a better book light, let me suggest a candle. Or a match. Or a jar full of lightning bugs. Anything but this awful, awful book light.
Shine On: 2
Sleeping Spouse: 5
Design/Ease of Use: 2
Total: 12 (out of 40 possible points)
Ultra Optix, $9.99 Similar in style to our worst book light but considerably less crappy. The Ultra Optix casts a pleasant, even light, and the clip fastens securely to the book. It's easily adjustable, too, and works well no matter the size of the book.
Here comes the big "but." When you grab the base, which you must do in order to attach it to the book, the battery cover will slide off. This happened nearly every time. In other words, when you use this product as it is intended to be used, it will fall apart in your hands. As a bonus, sometimes the batteries fall out too, and then you're forced to fumble around in the dark. And believe me, no good ever came from darkened fumbling.
To make sure I wasn't crazy, I asked my wife to give it a try. The battery cover fell off for her as well, thereby proving that, at least in this one respect, I am not crazy.
Shine On: 8
Sleeping Spouse: 8
Design/Ease of Use: 2
I-Sight Over-Ear Book Light, $24.95 As a rule, I prefer my ears to remain unadorned and free of unnecessary encumbrances, so I was biased against the over-the-ear book light. But you know what? It's less terrible than I thought. Because it's on your ear, not your book, you don't have to adjust the book light when you turn pages. And naturally, because it is attached to your ear, the light shines wherever you are looking. This could be useful if you were, say, reading several different books in the dark. (Though, if you really do need to read several books at once, allow me to suggest a well-lighted room.)
One drawback is that, because it is so small, there is room for only one battery, meaning that it will die more quickly than most other book lights (which usually use three or four batteries to produce a similar amount of light). It also fails the sleeping-spouse test; it's too easy to accidentally shine the light somewhere other than the book. Finally, wearing a book light on your ear may seem too dorky, even for those like me who are already fairly dorky.
Shine On: 6
Sleeping Spouse: 4
Design/Ease of Use: 7