Old School eBooks

The bedazzling Amazon Kindle reared its head about the same time I was getting a bee in my bonnet for some more in-depth reading. I’d been reading a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and had one of those serendipitous reinforcements, where another title is recommended and it’s been on a reading list for a while. But did I resort to some flashy new gadget to read a book? No! The tried and true PDA continues to be a great way to read a book.

In case you missed the news because you have just woken up after being cryogenically frozen, Amazon.com has released its own electronic book (e-book) reader, the Kindle.  It’s not the first – Sony has had its Reader out for some time – but it’s catching a lot of buzz.  I’m sure there are loads of reasons to consider one or the other of these products but there are two reasons I remain resistant to them:

1.  The form factor.  If I wanted to hold something the size of a book, then I would hold a book.

2.  The content.  I tend towards non-fiction and historical fiction (I’d say literature but that may be a bit grand!).  If you want a Patricia Cornwell novel, you’re probably going to need a modern e-book reader.

Instead, I use electronic books in the public domain that have been generated by Project Gutenberg.  I’ve read a few Dickens, an Austen, and am going through a James Fenimore Cooper phase, all texts created by volunteers and hosted at the Gutenberg.org site.  I have used the Plain Text files in the past (one of at least two file formats you’ll find at the site) but have started using the Plucker files recently.  Other than the pacifier logo, there’s not much to dislike about Plucker:  it works in the major operating systems, and can handle Web pages or e-books, and it’s open source.  It has good control of fonts so the texts are easy to read, and has an autoscroll feature so that you can set the pages to “turn” by themselves, as it were, which is great if you’re tight for space on a train.

E-books and the reader devices created for them seem to me to mimic the false steps of the transition legal publishers made when they moved their print products to digital environments.  They attempted to recreate the print environment, ignoring the benefits of the digital tools, the flexibility of the Web browser.  “Let’s create lots of sub windows and frames, so it feels like you’ve got books spread across a desk!” even though the lawyer is trying to research on a 17″ screen.  The last 10 years have seen major leaps in redesigning interfaces for easier (if not better!) research, but there has also been a shift in how the content is accessed.  The information chunk seems to get smaller, and navigation more important, taking advantage of the electronic shell within which this type of research happens.  If the e-book reader makers would make a similar leap – rather than creating a silicon book-shaped thing – and find better ways to deliver content to better devices, it would be interesting to see what develops.

In the meantime, I’ll stick with my Palm T|X, which is wireless like the Kindle, but has many more features, and still enables me to read amazing writing like Walt Whitman’s Memoranda During the War, an excellent collection made available at the University of Virginia’s e-book library.