E-book Readers and Project Gutenberg

A new Android app called Gutenberg Books appeared recently.  Not surprisingly, it is an e-book reader that attempts to integrate with Project Gutenberg, the 45 year old digital text project.  I use a variety of e-book apps for reading on my Android tablet or phone.  Gutenberg Books is an interesting addition but it is not as good as other free e-book readers that have more seamless integrations with Project Gutenberg.

Gutenberg Books Gut, Could be … Besser

I wrote a review of Gutenberg Books – which enables access to the Pro version of the app – which boils down to this:

  • it’s an acceptable e-book reader with basic customization
  • it has good integration with Project Gutenberg, as you’d expect
  • it’s search is very weak and so the ultimate experience isn’t as strong as it could be

If I were to recommend an e-book reader that integrates with Project Gutenberg, it would be either Cool Reader or FB Reader.  Both are open source (and if you aren’t already using it, F-Droid is a great open source app store for finding these and other apps) and FB Reader’s integration with not only Project Gutenberg but many other online, free e-book services is exceptional.

Project Gutenberg’s collection is public domain titles.  I use it most often to download classics, like Jane Austen’s Persuasion or Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, or history including American Civil War memoirs.  One of these latter is by an Alabama soldier named Samuel Watkins, and is quoted heavily in Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary.  It’s a great book, particularly hysterical when discussing his encounters with a mule, so I wondered how easy it would be to find with each of these e-book readers.

Need to Search

Cool Reader doesn’t enable search or browse.  Once you have connected Project Gutenberg within the app, all you can do is pull down popular and random titles.  Weirdly, Gutenberg isn’t one of Cool Reader’s default libraries, but it is the example when you want to add a library.  Both Gutenberg Books and FB Reader return results.

FB Reader’s results look very much like the Project Gutenberg native search results.  It proposes a bunch of alternate search terms and then returns matches.  These include the book by Samuel Watkins.  Since Project Gutenberg is a default library for FB Reader, there’s no set up or configuration necessary to do the search.  You select the Libraries portion of the app, select Gutenberg, and you’re off.

FB Reader e-book app search results for "Samuel Watkins"
Search results in FB Reader e-book app for “Samuel Watkins”

Gutenberg Book’s search appears to be based on a boolean OR so that it looks at each of your keywords separately.  Not only did it not return Samuel Watkins memoir, it wouldn’t return Ulysses Grant’s despite that relatively unique name.

Gutenberg Books app search results
Screenshot of search results in Gutenberg Books app for “Samuel Watkins”

The inability to search over Project Gutenberg diminishes the otherwise nice approach this app takes.  Gutenberg Books is cleanly designed and very visually appealing.  Cool Reader has a very 1980s-feeling wooden background and even FB Reader starts off with an odd color combination.  But for all of its modern look, Gutenberg Books doesn’t deliver as good an app as FB Reader.

In addition to better integration with Project Gutenberg’s collection – although I’m not sure quite how they do it, exactly, since Project Gutenberg doesn’t allow automated access – FB Reader provides many more options for the actual e-book reader part of the app.  You can scroll in different directions, fiddle with the look and feel of the pages themselves, and access a variety of other e-book libraries.  If it supports the Open Publication Distribution System (OPDS), you can add it to FB Reader.  Libraries can set up their own OPDS offering, to create a custom library of e-books for, say, a law firm or corporate library.

Gutenberg Books is off to a good start but it has a long way to go to catch up with other free e-book readers with better Project Gutenberg integration.