My e-book obsession

I HAVE AN E-BOOK OBSESSION! Did you know that? Let me explain.

E-book is obviously short for electronic book. This sounds like a nineteenth century name for what it is: a computer file. In such a computer file are the contents of a book. For example, a Word document with Pride and Prejudice in it is an e-book. So is a plain text file of the same book, or a web page or any other format. The point is that the environment where the book is read is a digital computer environment. There are a few issues about e-books that I think are important. First, there is the issue of reading an entire book on a screen. Despite that, I am obsessed with reading e-books, so I will explain why. Finally, what does the future hold for e-books?

The detractors say that e-books are not going to be widely read until they appear on screens that are much fancier than our low-resolution devices of today. A typical computer monitor has fewer than 100 pixels per inch of screen, so the most precise unit of measurement is 1100 inch. Book printing is done at a much higher resolution, and so the character shapes (‘glyphs’ in technical jargon) are very detailed lovely curves, compared to the collections of dots that you get on a screen. It is generally thought that it is easier to read the high-resolution text than the low. Moreover, monitors and laptop displays are backlit, where a book uses reflected light. Monitors blink at around 60-100 times per second, which can give you a headache (though laptop displays do not blink at all, which makes them more comfortable). All this adds up to a reading experience that tires your eyes pretty quickly. In the future, we may have “digital ink,” which is an umbrella term for a number of emerging technologies that work much more like a book. These would have a sheet of material that would feel like paper or plastic, but would be digital in that each page would have electrical current and a grid of extremely tiny pixels, such that the resolution was maybe as high as 1200 pixels per inch. Some sort of computer chip, maybe embedded right in the page, would turn pixels on and off and set them to different colors, to produce a document as lovely as a printed page.

Okay, so if reading electronic text is so awful, and can give you a headache, why do you read them? Well, my e-books don’t give me a headache. I read them on my Palm, and it neither blinks nor is backlit. The Palm screen works using reflected light just like page, or more to the point a digital watch. It has black LCD pixels on a light gray background, so it has high contrast and no flickering. When it’s dark, I do turn on the backlighting, and it indeed gives me a headache before too long. As for the pixellated fonts, they don’t bother me. I have a selection of fonts on my Palm and I have chosen ones that were very well designed to take advantage of the pixellation.

There is an art to making text readable at low resolution – compare some of the fonts on your computer at small point sizes and see which ones you think had readability at small sizes as a design goal.

So the problems I mentioned before don’t bother me. What’s so great, though? Why read an e-book instead of a paper book? E-books are one of those things that don’t make as much sense before you use them as they do after. Computers and the Internet required the same kind of transition, for example. But I can give you some of the reasons that reading books on my Palm lead to this je ne sais quoi. The main one is that the Palm holds several books. That means that without carrying anything extra around, I have several novels. (And the Palm itself is very slight and is always with me anyway, for notes and To Do’s and names and addresses and the like.) If I’m stuck in line at the bank, or on a bus, or waiting for Alison to find some pants at Old Navy, I can (and do) slip my Palm out of my pocket and resume reading right were I left off. I have one of the buttons on the front re-assigned to launching my e-book program, so that I can perform all of this with just my thumb. If you like reading, then the idea of bringing your books that much closer and having them that much more accessible will make sense to you, too.

Another plus is the ability to read with one hand. I can use my thumb to scroll to the next page if I hold my Palm upside-down and rotate the display as well (screen orientation is an option in my e-book reader). This works great at meals, and when straphanging on public transportation. You can search for text too, which I’ve used to remind myself of past actions in the story, or to re-read a passage where a character was first introduced (oh, he’s her uncle). Finally, the backlighting is a boon for married folks. The dim light doesn’t disturb your bedmate, and so it solves the “reading in bed problem” for me. Like I said, though, it gets hard on my eyes within about 20 minutes. Your mileage may vary.

If you’re sold on e-books, let me warn you off a little bit. It’s hard to get them. If you want to see the best store there is, and it’s good but it’s no Amazon, then visit Peanutpress.com. They are owned by Palm and they have a pretty large selection, six or seven of which I’ve bought and downloaded. I hope that the future brings great growth to this and other vendors. What’s to lose? They do a one-time translation from the electronic source of the printed book into an e-book, and they sell each copy for $6, without having to make any books. The economics are there, so it’s just the usual chicken-and-egg market size story: the market isn’t there until there are lots of customers, but customers aren’t drawn until there are lots of books. Peanutpress is forging the way by selling all these books into a tiny market. There are more e-publishing ventures than there were a couple of years ago, though. The publishing houses have set up some online e-book stores, but they seem mainly geared to books that don’t also get printed the old way. This give the impression that they are second-rate fare, not good enough to publish as “real” books. Still, this means they are giving a voice to authors that they can’t afford to publish any other way (presumably), and more voices is good (as long as they aren’t spewing crap).

I have read a lot more than five or six e-books, though. I’ve read about 20 novels this way, and I’m reading one now with four more lined up. How did I do that? It’s pretty interesting, really. First I buy the book at a bookstore. I put it on my shelf and I never open it. Then, I go online (using Limewire usually, which is a Gnutella client) and I type in the author’s name. Often a list of text files pops up, and sometimes even fancier formats like RTF (which has formatting and bold and italic fonts) or HTML. These are created by someone with a “book scanner,” which is a regular scanner plus a page feeder. They cut off the spine of a book and feed all the pages in. The software puts the images in the right order and does character recognition on it, and makes a text file. These are then distributed over the internet for folks to download. It’s exactly like the way music and movies are pirated online, and it violates all the same copyright laws. I don’t feel bad, though, because I buy the book and merely use this technique to “move it onto my Palm.” Am I bad for doing that? I can’t tell, but I certainly don’t feel bad.

Let me wrap this up by indicating some of the ideas that I consider to be at the fringe of e-books. Some will tell you that dedicated e-book readers like the Gemstar e-book are what e-books are about. These devices are crippled compared to a Palm or other handheld. They are too big, too expensive, and they control what content you can install. You cannot convert one of your own text files or web pages to an appropriate format and load it onto the Gemstar, like you can with a Palm.

Another non-e-book line of thinking are the Adobe E-book reader and the Microsoft Reader. These are programs for your laptop or desktop machine, and so they are lacking the two main requirements of e-books: portability and reflective screens. I can curl up on the sofa with a cup of coffee and my Palm. If I were a PocketPC user (like Palms only with a Microsoft operating system) I’d be very disappointed right now. You can get lots of books in the Microsoft Reader format, but only a subset of those can be used with the Pocket PC version of the Reader. I can’t understand why, unless it’s because they have hard-coded line breaks that don’t work on the smaller pocket-sized screen. But that’s not a good enough reason – make the line breaking dynamic and get the books on the handhelds!

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Greg Langmead
Machine Learning Engineer

I am a software engineer and mathematician. I work on NLP algorithms for Apple News, and research homotopy type theory in CMU’s philosophy department.