My Experience with E-Books

By Deane Barker on July 19, 2003

Prompted by Microsoft’s generosity, I’ve started reading e-books, and I think I’m addicted. I read a book last year called “The Social Life of Information” which put forth all sorts of reasons why e-books weren’t going to work. I agreed with it then, but after actually trying it, I’m hooked.

I started out with Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Eveything.” I read it in Microsoft Reader, mostly sitting on the couch with my trusty Toshiba Satellite in my lap. I’d even take my computer to bed, resting it on my chest. It was much more natural than you’d think. After a few pages, I mentally slipped into the book just as if it was a hardcover. Before I knew it, 600 pages had zipped by. (Phenomenal book, by the way.)

Reading a book on a laptop is much, much more natural than I imagined for one important reason: a laptop sits up by itself. You don’t have to hold it like you hold a book. On the couch, I’d slouch down with the laptop out on my knees, one arm holding a drink, and the other arm draped over a cushion. Every once in a while, I’d reach out and hit the space bar to “turn” the page. It was almost…luxurious.

I’ve gotten in the habit of reading over breakfast. I’ll sit the laptop on the counter, eat a bowl of cereal, and stop only to turn the page. When I’m done for the moment, I just close the laptop and it suspends itself until I “open” the book again. Because of this, my supposed need for an e-book reader or a Tablet PC has evaporated. Neither of those would keep themselves upright like my Toshiba.

Microsoft Reader has a bevy of tools for reading — you can highlight text, add a text note, add a bookmark, etc. Highlighting is neat, but I didn’t use it much. Same with text notes. And bookmarks are pretty much unnecessary, because the book remembers the last page it was on. I used the Reader for one thing: to read. The functionality you need for that is awfully slim.

Microsoft Reader “swallows” books — once you download them, they disappear into the interface. You don’t “open” a file. Instead the front page is a library page that lists all the books you have available. Click one and it opens to the last page you were on. You can run the reader in “full page” mode which blots out the desktop and just floats the page on a black background, which lets you tune everything else out.

All in all, Microsoft Reader is a very slick tool. It’s simple to use, works well, and in the end, it was just as good an experience as reading a traditional book. Thumbs up.

Prompted by my buddy Joe, I also went to Peanut Press and grabbed the Palm Reader (get it?) and some free books over there (they have very few, but enough to let you see how it works). The Palm Reader isn’t quite as slick as Microsoft’s tool, but it worked well. It has the advantage of letting you “theme” the page with your own font-face, font-size, and page background. Microsoft had much more limited tools for this. The Palm Reader also goes full screen, but I couldn’t find a way to shut off the top menu bar. It offers the same functions for highlights and such, and it opens files in the more traditional way: File > Open, then you find the file on your hard drive.

Finally, after trying these two, I attempted to read a book as a PDF in Adobe Acrobat. It didn’t work as well, primarily because the document was formatted for a letter-sized page and this made the font too small (imagine a typical type-written page and the amount of text on it, then shrink this down so the whole page appears on the screen). In a PDF, there’s no tool to increase the font size, or change the face. You can run a PDF in full-screen mode (CTRL-L), but in doing this, you lose access to highlights and notes and such. In the end, you’d need to format a PDF specifically for e-book reading (crank up the font size, margins, and line spacing) for it to be much good.

So, e-books have my vote for way cool use of technology. Right now, between Microsoft and Palm, I have several dozen books to read. And unlike paper books, I don’t have them stacked around the house, I can pack them with me on trips (I read several dozen pages of Bryson’s book on the way to the Brookings Art Festival), and I can switch between them with a click or two.

The convenience of this has prompted me to read some unlikely texts, like the Declaration of Independence. Have you ever read it all the way through? (I mean, since the eighth grade?) Very worthwhile. And FDR’s first inaugural speech (“…the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself…”) which so moved me that I found it in audio on the Web and listened to it before reading it again.

Right now I’m a third of the way through the classic Sherlock Holmes novel, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” And Microsoft has just released “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” another book I’ve always meant to read, but have never gotten around to.

Curl up with an e-book. I bet you’ll like it more than you think.

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