Receiving an Android tablet as a gift has had a palpable influence on my life, and a good one, I think.
Regarded as a "tablet PC", that is, as a sort of palm-top computer, the device is quite poor. My inexperience in this field prevents me from knowing whether the primitive operating system and general lack of facilities that the Windows user takes for granted is a feature of this particular tablet (Archos 7 Home Tablet) or of Android machines in general. For that reason, I won’t stray into criticism of that aspect.
As for the influence it has had on my life, this comes directly from the fact that the one application pre-installed on the machine that I really appreciate is the ebook reader. I never thought that I would speak in such terms of an ebook reader and at first I was merely curious. But then the curiosity led on to my searching the Web to see what books were available and then to the realization that I had stumbled upon a hitherto unsuspected rich resource.
The application in question is called Aldiko. As it is my first ebook reader, I cannot compare it with the famous names on the market such as Kindle, Sony and Nook, but it is fairly basic in its design, lacking some of the more sophisticated features that I read about in reviews of dedicated reading devices. The only formats it can read are epub and pdf but that turned out not to be a great limitation. In a comment on my blog, WOL reminded me that there existed an ebook management application called Calibre and I took a look at it.
Calibre is what you might call the ebook reader’s factotum: it presents a set of very useful functions that include cataloguing your books, searching online for books and – crucially – converting books from one format to another. I have installed the portable version of Calibre (I love portable software because you can carry it around on a flash drive but, more importantly, as in the good old days of MS-DOS, portable applications leave no trace in your Windows registry and can be uninstalled simply by deleting them) and I find it very useful for specific purposes. Thus, if I come across a book I wish to read but it is in the "wrong" format, I can simply get Calibre to convert it to epub.
Despite its simplicity, Aldiko has an advantage over the commercial ebook readers. These try to tie you into a specific format and specific source of books (Kindle, for example, is tied to Amazon, which I think exercises a degree of control over the device itself and its readers that I regard as unacceptable) whereas with Aldiko I can read anything that I can pick up on the Web. I even got Calibre to convert a Wikipedia article into an ebook which I then read on Aldiko. How’s that for versatility?
Being a tight wad, I have so far read only free books. After spending a certain amount of time scouring the Web, I have gathered a collection of ebook sources that present me with far more books than I can expect to read in a lifetime. My list is not complete and I am sure that diligent searching will discover others. Not that all suppliers of "free" books are what they purport to be. Some are trying to palm off propaganda about dubious health or religious issues (there are several Christian sites playing this game), while others seek to lure you in with the promise of a few free titles (usually ones that are available everywhere else) and in order to sell you others. There are enough genuine free sites that these charlatans can safely be ignored.
A disadvantage that I have found lies in the formatting. Again, I cannot say whether the fault is with Aldiko or with the text itself, though I suspect it is a mixture of both. Free books are usually digitized by volunteers, often using OCR, and this tends to scatter errors in the text – I often find myself puzzling over an inappropriate word or a meaningless bunch of characters until I suddenly realize what the word should be. In books that have headers at the top of the page and footnotes at the bottom, these items will appear anywhere on the page, not in their rightful place and pagination is ignored. However, you soon get used to this and, after all, the slight inconvenience that it causes is a small enough price to pay for a free book.
Another disadvantage is that free books are almost always old books, books in other words, on which the copyright has expired. There is a nuance here, however. Sometimes the copyright will have expired in, say, the US or Australia, but not in the UK. This means that even if you can download the book in the UK, you are not allowed to do so. So you don’t, do you? No, of course not. Copyright remains a thorny issue and I suspect the approaching universal use of ereaders will add to the pressure for copyright reform.
There is another issue related to copyright, namely Digital Rights Management (DRM) and its sidekick copy protection. I know very little about this and as I has so far stuck to reading free books, it is not something I have had any experience of. I will therefore leave the topic there until I know more about it.
People will tell you that you can also obtain recent books in digital form that are free. Yes, you can, but in most cases they are either technical books – manuals, for example – that are not exactly bedtime reading, or they are books that are not worth the trouble of downloading, such as the propaganda books already mentioned. The argument is made that publishing your own books free on the Web is the way of the future. Really? Come on, be honest: what writer gives away his or her books instead of selling them? The answer is either an idealist (and there aren’t many of those around these days) or someone whose books would never sell, either because they are too specialized or because they are simply not very good. Still, if they are available and they are free, why not take a look? It costs nothing, after all…
I have kept to older books. At first I did so with a certain reluctance, thinking I would just try a few for the experience before going back to reading modern books on paper. For one thing, I dislike fiction, and my mind was prejudiced against old non-fiction on the principle that it would be out of date and therefore not really worth reading. I was wrong.
I have read several old non-fiction books and found them well worth my time. I will mention just one, Giles Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria. Against all my expectations, I found this a rivetting read. Queen Victoria is now a much more real person to me after reading this book and I also learnt a lot about political and historical events during her reign. I have a number of other similar books lined up for future reading.
I have not neglected creative literature completely though the experience has not been entirely happy. I thought I would try Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. I was quite impressed with it to start with. Collins is a competent writer who produces credible characters, but he is somewhat prolix and the plot develops so slowly that I found myself swinging from suspense to boredom, generally the latter. I reached a point in the story where I thought the denouement must surely follow within a few pages and looked to see how much of the book remained. Fatal mistake: I discovered I was still only half-way through. The shock of that was enough to make me put the book aside, probably permanently.
I am persevering, however. Currently I am reading Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal and Antonio Machado’s collection of poems, Campos de Castilla. I used to have to teach the latter and I thought it would be fun to re-read it now that the sense of urgency has passed. I may also revisit some of the other books I studied as a student or as a teacher. I also read part of Gide’s L’immoraliste until I decided that the philosophy behind it was too rarefied for me and I switched to Anatole France and Le Livre de Mon Ami. It is altogether a more amiable read.
I have a few other books on the digital shelf, such as Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea and George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and, on my computer, a whole set of titles from Darwin though Conrad to John Stuart Mill, all waiting until the moment seems right.
I have found that I can transfer books from the PC to the tablet very easily. I can also download them directly from the Web using, for example, the mobile version of Project Gutenberg. I have at least three ways of transferring books. Firstly, I can email a book to myself as an attachment. Once it arrives on the tablet it can be detached and added to Aldiko’s bookshelf. Or I can connect the tablet via the USB cable and simply copy and paste as from one folder to another. Or I can insert the tablet’s SDHC memory card into the computer’s reader and transfer files onto it.
The upshot of this is that I now do a lot more reading than I used to. I can even carry the tablet with me to read on tube or train journeys, the only limitation there being the dreadfully short battery life of the Archos 7 Home Tablet. I may invest in a travel charger – one of those that contains enough batteries to recharge your device.
We bought our respective tablets as much as anything in order to find out what this sort of device offered and to learn from them what we ought to look for when we replace them later. When I first got mine, I thought it might encourage me to buy a dedicated ebook reader but it hasn’t. What I will be looking for at some future date is not an ebook reader that will limit me and tie me to a supplier but a tablet with a better ebook reader on board. So far I am not impressed with Android ereaders and Aldiko, for all its faults, seems the best of the bunch, but I have no doubt that that situation will change in time. The proliferation of devices is one thing I feel strongly about and I think that we should be looking for devices that combine a number of functions, not buying dedicated single-task machines. Tablets have it in them to become the best ebook readers. Just let’s hope that promise is fulfilled soon.
Here is a short list of some of the free book sources that I have so far found:
Some of these also provide facilities for online reading. They work well both on a PC and on a tablet but only when you are connected to the Internet. They are therefore fine at home (or in the coffee shop) but less so when you are travelling.