So I kept poking away at the browser code and my gadget toolkit.
It's getting fairly sophisticated now: I improved the StackLayout gadget to add filling and relative sizing glue. I added a list gadget - which works by pages, and is similar to JList, including a cell renderer, list model and selection model and I played around with a whole lot of other stuff as well.
So I have enough to finally create a reader shell: it presents a list of the files on the device, and lets you open them up with a pdf reader or a text reader, depending on the file type. Once inside it has a full-screen viewer with no visible buttons - but without buttons you can zoom, pan, change pages one at a time or flip through many a time. A popup menu (single short press in the middle of the screen) lets you quit back to the shell.
I cache the pagination for text files, so they open very quickly after the first visit, assuming the font settings haven't changed. The pagination descriptor is small, about 7k for a 500 page document. On a re-visit of the same file (i.e. once the jvm is warmed up), it's loading 500k text file in about 1/2 a second but even from a cold-start it's only about a second. PDF files also open fast, about the same speed. i.e. not much slower than the e-ink can refresh a single greyscale page. Closing a file and returning to the shell is similarly speedy.
And whilst the interface isn't very complicated, everything is still quite responsive, with no missed finger presses or long unexplained delays (although the first time you open a 500k text file, it still takes about 25s to re-paginate).
My panning is still a bit slow, although I am rendering the bitmap on the fly as well.
But ... i've pretty much done what I want for now: prove that the kobo touch e-reader is a zippy little unit, capable of much more performance than the included software lets it deliver.
I'll drop the code in MediaZ sometime in the next few days, and continue working on it for at least a while.