Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Reading books

Ars has an article about how reading ebooks is not like reading books. The article tries to make the point that somehow paper books are better. Or at least, something is lost going to a non-paper form. I'd say we've gotten to the point where this is moot. In particular, there's an image of a book in the article. Guess what? I read the article in a browser. I could have done this on a portable browser. I get the full artwork. It's also a special case.

I have a 2002 vintage Visor Platinum. If fits in my shirt pocket. It has a monochrome LCD with backlight. It works well in full sunlight, and pitch dark. There is a twilight where the backlight isn't strong enough which is pretty awful. This situation doesn't come up often. It runs on twin AAA batteries, which last, with modern rechargables from the grocery store, about 20 hours per charge. I can carry spares, for longer life. The device life in not limited by batteries. It has 8 MB memory (RAM/file store), enough for several books. The Bible is 1.44 MB compressed. It cost $110 when new. I bought two of them. One loads new books on it via USB or serial.

Until recently, i used it to read books, using the freeware weasel reader. It reads Palm doc books, and also it's own zlib compressed text format. It's own format has bookmarks that can be prebuilt for chapters, etc. There is a utility that will create this format from Gutenberg books, for example. It has two usable fonts - small and large bold. It allows bookmarking and annotating. It remembers where you were in a book. So you can always annotate using some other Palm application, like creating a memo.

I never annotated real books - postit notes hadn't been invented, and i never got into that habit. I don't write in books. But with electronic books, i'll spot an error, and put together a 'diff file' and send it to Gutenberg. My changes tend to make it into the archive, and i'm encouraged to continue doing this. Electronic books are interactive for me in a seriously real way.

There are only a few books i've read more than once. The Harry Potter series, and The Lord of the Rings, for example. But also, from Gutenberg, Reddy Fox. I've read this one maybe five times, out loud. It's incredibly hard to proof read, and i found errors even in the 5th reading (using a text will all my previous corrections applied). Most errors will go unnoticed, but i hope i've helped improve the quality of the work.

I read about 50 books a year. I read about 35, and listen to another 15. It takes a long time to get through 1,000 books. Having alot of books makes sense primarily for reference.

The Visor is an excellent book reader for me. The battery life is long. The device is highly portable. It's main drawbacks are that it is no longer sold - so it can't be replaced, the digitizer is fragile, and it will eventually break, it was basically incapable of showing pictures, it was limited to plain text - no bold, italics, etc.

Now, I have a a Nokia 770. It was about $150 new (sort of closeout). It is the same physical size as the Palm. It has an internal (but replacable) rechargable battery which lasts about 5 hours. That's enough for a commute. One loads data on it via USB or WiFi. The screen is high resolution color. I have 2 GB of file store, enough for a small library. FBReader is available for it, which can read plain text, html (but it is NOT a web browser, in particular, it doesn't seem to let you follow links, so books should be one huge file). FBReader can read compressed files. But with 2 GB of space, this isn't much of an issue. FBReader lets me pick colors for text and background, as well as font and size, so i can customize the experience to the lighting conditions. I read alot in the dark. HTML books, such as A Christmas Carol on Gutenberg, have a few images, and FBReader displays them extraordinarily well on the 770. FBReader also lets you flip between books easily.

The 770 also has a real web browser (Opera) which allows me to read some web based books better. It also allows me to surf the web, read web comics, etc.

The 770 also has a PDF reader. I don't like PDF for online books. I much prefer a format where i can increase (or decrease) the font size, and have the machine rewrap the text to match the screen size. The PDF format is not very flexible. PDF's which have been formatted for two columns on 8.5x11 paper work better than those with one wide chunk of text. But on the 770, i'll make it work if the content is worth it.

With several book readers available, i find that i'm reading several books at a time. Two or three in FBReader, three or four in a web browser, and typically one or two in PDF.

The 770 can play music. I don't generally listen while reading. If it turns out that playing music consumes the reader's batteries, one could use an appropriate dedicated mp3 player. My iPod lasts about 18 hours on a charge. Other mp3 players use AAA batteries, and a pocketful will last weeks of continuous use.

I don't currently commute to work hands free. When i did, it was about an hour each way. I have used a laptop during the commute, and four hours endurance was fine. I could (but didn't) recharge at work.

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