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You may have noticed some small orange and white boxes on the shelves of military libraries throughout Europe lately.

Take a closer look: They contain the newest versions of audio books. These “books” are actually preloaded digital audio players, about the size of an iPod.

Karen Murphy, who runs the U.S. Army Library Program, said the Army began purchasing the audio books last spring for military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now they are finding their way to library shelves on military installations throughout Europe.

The books are produced by Playaway. According to Caroline Barni, the company’s marketing director, Playaway has sold and shipped approximately 60,000 units (comprising nearly 300 titles) to military installations around the world. The company currently produces 1,000 titles.

The players come packaged with headphones, a spare battery for the longer titles, and even a lanyard so users can wear them around their neck. As the package indicates, the only requirement is two ears.

The players can be checked out of the library at no charge, just as with a regular book.

According to users, this form of “reading” does take some getting used to. You’re not as mentally engaged with the material, and if you want to reread passages, it takes a bit longer to review than simply flipping pages. This is especially true of the longer titles — such as the 25-hour version of Thomas L. Friedman’s “The World Is Flat.”

However, the audio format takes considerably less time to complete than a traditional book.

Many of the current military reading list titles are on Playaway units. But installation libraries also carry nonreading list titles in this format, particularly popular authors such as John Grisham and Stephen King. They also carry a few foreign language tutorials, including Arabic and Portuguese.

Donna Beck, who works for the library at the Navy Support Site in Naples, Italy, said the Playaways accommodate those with tight schedules.

“People say they don’t have time to read,” she said. “With this format, they can be exposed to more literature while doing other things, like exercising.”

Shawn Friend-Begin, a supervisory librarian with U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern in Germany agrees.

“You can listen to some great literature or recreational titles — any time, anywhere,” she said.

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