Recently I began reading ebooks. Before I address which books specifically and related issues let me put a few things on the table.
This post is about my experiences in the recent present and not about the future of what will or might be (even if I comment on that).
I have read quite a fair number of lengthy things from desktop computer CRTs, a flat panel display, and on both my 12″ Mac PowerBook and my 13″ MacBook. I read quite a few PDFs and lengthy web pages that I did not want to print out for whatever reason, many of them from the PowerBook, back in the day when I was reading heavily in our field and writing about it here.
Several years ago I bought a PDF ebook on some computer topic from the Woody’s Watch email newsletter folks. Maybe I read it, maybe I used it as a reference book. Can’t say as I remember.
Last summer via rebate I got a 16GB iPod Touch for free when I bought the MacBook. Until recently, though, I hadn’t used it much at all. I loaned it to a friend to take to ALA Midwinter and she tested out a few apps and also discovered that our campus IT folks had finally made an “app” available that connects one to the campus network whenever you are in range.
The insta-connection made a huge difference in my willingness to use it. The other thing that made me start using it more is the app Stanza.
Stanza is a very useful app, although not perfect (more about this in a moment). I still have a paper-based book in my backpack for reading on the bus and/or at lunch, but I find that it has been remaining in the backpack more and more as I grab the Touch and go (lunch). Part of this is that I have a new winter coat and I do not have a nice big pocket to put a book in anymore. Part of it is something(s) else.
In some ways the Touch is more convenient. It certainly lies flat better than most books. It is lighter than most every book. But it also has drawbacks. No. 1 is that a large number of things I want to read are not available for the Touch, either due to format issues or period. No. 2 is that I have a ton of print things I do want to read and am not about to pay again for an ebook version, assuming one is available. And, yes, I do imagine that over time availability will change. [Note: Amazon’s recent Kindle app for the Touch/iPhone will do little to make the books I want to read available any time soon, if ever.]
I am aware that if I used Google Books then I might find even more available than I think are, but until the scanning/OCR process is greatly improved No Thank You! I used to do electronic reserves work and while this work is valuable in assorted ways I hated reading even the quality work we produced. [UIUC still has a massive way to go in this arena and could learn from what we were doing.] Thus, I’m not about to routinely try reading Google Books books on my Touch. Also, I believe that requires a network connection. Sustained reading on my Touch should not require a network connection except for the occasional acquisition.
I still greatly value production value in my content, be it editorial work, text layout, or the many other qualities that go into a quality reading experience (in any medium). [See for example, Mandy Brown’s In Defense of Readers at A List Apart.]
On that note, on to issues of
So far, I have read one purchased book and a couple free ones from assorted sources. The purchased one had the worst formatting in Stanza.
The purchased book was The Lust Chronicles from Ravenous Romance. Ravenous Romance publishes only ebooks and audiobooks and they are quite affordable [$1.99 for short stories, $4.99 for ebooks, $12.99 for audiobooks]. Their ebooks come in multiple formats and for one price you can download any and every format you need. Your purchase price allows you to download the book up to 50 times over a 50-day period. Not sure why these are the terms but they are certainly liberal.
I initially got the .epub format which they say is for Stanza. Could not make it work on either my laptop or the Touch, nor could we get it to work on S’s laptop or Touch [1st & 2nd gen Touchs, respectively]. After futzing around in the FAQs at both Ravenous Romance and Lexcycle I gave up and grabbed the PDF.
The PDF looks exquisite on the laptop either in Adobe Acrobat or in Stanza. But. It is completely wonky on the Touch. It is readable, but it is distracting. The table of contents is run together as one long paragraph instead of as a list. The formatting of the individual story titles and authors, and all white space between chapters, is thrown out and thus the stories are all kind of run together. I guess for $4.99 I cannot complain too much but it was a distraction during reading.
Turns out this is what Stanza does with PDFs, thus I have started using PDF Annotater on the Touch for PDFs. It provides annotation capabilities and allows one to read PDFs with graphics. This purchased pdf looks exquisite in PDF Annotater on the Touch.
The other books I have read are:
E. A. Poe, “Bon-Bon” (1832) (short story) from www.feedbooks.com. The formatting on this one isn’t too bad. Default format is fully justified which I do not like when the justifier is not good, or, as in the case of the Touch screen, the “page” size is small. I just turned off the full justification and, although the right margin is even more ragged than normal in ragged right justification, I do like it better.
Paragraph breaks exist but new paragraphs are indented a whole 1 space. Not much, but now that I left justified the text it is generally enough. With the text fully justified over to the right margin one space was not enough. All-in-all, the formatting of this short story is not bad, especially with the changes I just made.
D. H. Lawrence, Amores: Peoms (1916) New York : B. W. Huebsch (E-text prepared by Lewis Jones) www.blackmask.com [2007 Blackmask Online / Munsey’s Magazine]
[Seems blackmask is now Munseys and will redirect you to http://www.munseys.com/.]
This text seems to be formatted fine but I have some concerns. Being a neophyte reader of poetry I am still trying to get a grasp of “the art of the poetic line” and the narrow screen width plays havoc with such.
Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines. More than meter, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing. Great prose might be filled with metaphors. The rhythmic vitality of prose might be so intense that it rises to moments of regularity we can scan. Its diction may be more sensuous, more evocative, than that of many poems. We wouldn’t be attracted to the notion of prose poetry if it didn’t feel exciting to abandon the decorum of lines (Preface, xi).
Longenbach, James. 2008. The Art of the Poetic Line. Art of series. Saint Paul, Minn: Graywolf.
Sure, I can rotate the Touch and get a wider line length but then am required to move forward (or backward) through more “pages.” And this forces more stanzas to be broken across pages so that the next step in poetic semantics from the line to the stanza is also seriously affected.
I’m not saying that this is a non-starter or that it is an issue for more practiced readers of poetry but it is a concern to me.
Christina Rosetti, Poems (1906) Boston : Little, Brown and Co. / Author’s edition, revised and enlarged 1876, University Press : John Wilson and Son, Cambridge. Produced by Steven desJardins, Jeffrey Online Distributed Proofreading Team. www.blackmask.com [2007 Blackmask Online / Munsey’s Magazine]
Pretty much the same issues (for me) as Lawrence. Also, there are an awful lot of poems in this text so navigation by bookmarks (where every poem is a bookmark) involves a lot of scrolling.
For another perspective, “why is text on screens so ugly?,” see the post at if:book re hyphenation (or lack thereof) in e-texts.
For this issue, I am not sure whether it is the Touch or Stanza. Page navigation is accomplished by touching the right side of the screen to move forward, and the left side to move backward. Sometimes the pages go the opposite way from which you are touching it to do so. Generally it isn’t too big of a deal but it is a pain when reading poetry. It is a massive deal when one is trying to read poetry aloud in an attempt to cheer up someone special. My Touch got tossed across the room the other evening when it did this several times in a row to me. Not that my getting upset helped the situation at all. Thankfully it didn’t hurt it, either (the situation or the Touch).
Metadata and citation issues:
I am a cataloger. But even before that I have lived a lifetime with “bibliographic” data and issues of citation, be they in person (oral), in writing, or on the web. [OK, the last one hasn’t been a lifetime, but you get the point.]
I have been listing my albums (LPs) in assorted documents since I was about 14. Shortly after that came the books, the cassette tapes, the CDs, DVDs, journal articles, …. Once upon a time, I practically made a living of testing assorted free- and shareware database software for cataloging one’s collections. Metadata is almost always important to me. Often I even exert the effort to control and harness it.
The web and its promises—the Semantic Web, linked data, whatever you want to call what we might one day have, and what we could even have today—give these efforts even more importance. I am not claiming we need a full-fledged librarian version of authority control for the web, but things must be what they purport to be and when that purporting comes from another linked resource then it is even more critical that the purporting be correct and not subject to change in some fundamental way that invalidates the claim.
Also, this data must be fully and easily shareable, despite the recent objections of one of LibraryLand’s overlords.
Bussel, ed. The Lust Chronicles at Ravenous Romance – This page does a decent job of giving me some useful metadata. I get a title, an ISBN, and a publication date (to the exact day). I’m less pleased by the attribution statement; “by Rachel Kramer Bussel” is true in a loose interpretation of “by” but not in the more bibliographic sense. RKB is the editor (and compiler) of this collection of edited, slightly reworked, blog posts. But at least the “by” name is linked so that we can easily see what else this “author” is responsible for from this publisher.
My biggest gripe with this page (and the publisher) is that they provide no machine-readable data for Zotero (or similar programs) to pick up. Sure, I can bring that page in as a web page in Zotero but then I get minimal data about the page itself and not about the book. So much then has to be manually changed (including type of resource) that it’s almost easier to just do it by hand in the first place.
At least the human-readable data on the page is describing the book itself.
Poe. “Bon-Bon” at feedbooks.com. Pretty much the same issues as above. No machine-readable metadata supplied. Pulling into Zotero as a web page serves little purpose due to the low amount of data, most of which needs some massaging. No ISBN.
Lawrence. Amores at munseys.com. OK, here is where I start to lose it. There is all kinds of neat data here for “this” book. Except it isn’t. The data is purportedly brought in from LibraryThing and it is for … wait. Wait for it. The title and author are correct. But all that other neat data (Blurbers, awards and honors, epigraph, last words, people/characters, canonical title, …) is for Like Water for Chocolate. You know, that might be a good book. It might even be great. But it is not Lawrence’s Amores. I guess we’re actually lucky we can’t pull in all that bullshit data automatically.
Rossetti. Poems at munseys.com. My first gripe is that this book on a cover internal to the file claims to be New Poems by Christina Rosetti: Hitherto Unpublished or Uncollected. So what is the title? Other than that, it has the same issues as Lawrence’s Amores, except this one claims, via data also pulled from LibraryThing, to be The Complete Works of Shakespeare.
So much for linked data and/or what things purport themselves to be.
The following comments (this section) only apply to the freely available, public domain books that I’ve been reading and/or looking at.
When you browse these books at sites like munseys.com and feedbooks.com you are generally not seeing the covers that belong to the version of the text that you are acquiring/browsing. feedbooks.com looks to (possibly) be better about having the cover art that goes with their books, but munseys.com most certainly does not. The text of these books is not from the Norton Critical or Penguin editions, for instance.
Many would argue that this is a benefit of freely available cover art. I disagree. Maybe I’m just too old—a dinosaur from another age—but I feel that these visual clues are important to knowing just which text I am dealing with. This misdirection is not the slightest bit useful to me. In fact, I consider it a serious problem and would rather just see a generic cover like those available in LibraryThing [example from my library]. [Hmmm. Interesting. At munseys.com (web version) they don’t show cover art. I only see them when browsing from the Touch.]
I mean c’mon. I’m browsing books on my Touch. How useful can a “cover image” thumbnail even be? Ah well; I know people will disagree. If these covers work for them then great. I consider it a disservice. At best.
Which leads to the next question regarding these books?
Which edition am I reading? [I’ll ignore FRBR to avoid the wholly unresolved issues surrounding Expressions, Manifestations, and Items in the electronic world.] But in the old school world of print books, using languge that is at least nearing a couple centuries now, which edition am I looking at? Despite the lie of the cover art, I am pretty well convinced that I do not have the text of, say, the Penguin Classic edition.
Maybe I just need to get with the new world order of no authority and information that is totally free. I.e, information that is totally disconnected from its cultural and historical contexts. I may only be reading a novel but this dinosaur wants to be able to put it into its proper context, thank you very much. And I want to be able to cite it in all the assorted ways in which I may need/want to do so.
On the topic of Zotero, does it need a new format for ebooks? Sure, ebooks are just books. But—and this is highly preliminary as this is my 1st attempt at citing them—they need a field for URL to the book (if directly addressable as a download) and one for the provider. Those two requirements could possibly be served by the URL and Repository fields. But what about recording the format (.epub, .pdf. .mobi, …)? Anything else I’m missing?
Comments on the Works
The Lust Chronicles – This was hit and miss as one might expect of a book composed of disparate blog entries. But all in all, and for $4.99, I enjoyed it. There’s something to be said for discreetly reading erotica on one’s ebook device while riding public transit.
“Bon-Bon” – I thought Poe’s short stories were supposed to be good. Maybe I just got the wrong one. Meh. Thankfully it was short.
Amores – I quite enjoyed this and immediately looked for a print copy. It does not seem to be in print anymore and the only used copy I found was an old library castoff for a stupid amount of money. But one can get Complete Poems (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) [1088 pages], which includes lots of extra material from Amazon for $16.47, or one can get The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence (Wordsworth Pub., 352 pages) for $7.99. I kind of want the 1st one but I do not enjoy reading from books that large. I have requested a copy via ILL of the 1st and larger one to see if it is the one I want.
Poems – This one I am back and forth on. I enjoyed some of the early poems and some from the middle and then there was a long stretch before finding some more I liked. There are a lot of poems here, some fairly long. I liked it enough to try and find a decent collection of her poems in print.
This exercise led to failures with library metadata; specifically, uniform titles in WorldCat. Telling me that there are 134 editions available but making it hard to narrow down which edition my librar(ies) hold is not a service. It is a disservice. I don’t want just any edition. But then, perhaps, I am a dinosaur. That, and library metadata issues, are topics for different posts.
I will keep reading some ebooks and PDFs on my Touch. In fact, I downloaded several more titles the other night. I already had the Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. So I grabbed Emerson’s Essays, Wells’ Tales of Time and Space and The Time Machine, Wagner’s The Simple Life, and one or two others.
Hopefully some of the issues I complain about above will work themselves out. My concern is whether they will be solved or whether I (and others) will simply adjust to this brave new world. Either way works, I guess. But I fear the second leads to the loss of something meaningful.