July 25th, 2009

Reading and Electronic Editions

From the Vine Maple Studio, I plan to share some of the electronic books that I like in the form that I like to read. Perhaps other readers will enjoy them as much as I do.

Paradoxically, I don’t particularly care for electronic books. I read a lot but seldom watch TV or movies. My tastes in reading range widely and my book collection is varied and in the last decade, it has grown to include many electronic books as well as paper. I am surprised that my electronic books are generally older than those in my paper collection. The oldest literature that I own, if you want to call it literature, is a collection of reproductions of Shang Dynasty c. 1200 BC oracle bone inscriptions that was the text book for a seminar on reading the inscriptions that I took years ago. orac As antiquities, the inscriptions are mildly interesting, tersely chronicling the repeated defeats of the wretched Hsiung Nu and occasionally noting that the king had a toothache. As entertainment, they are barely so-so, but the fact that they are written in characters and language that is closer to modern Chinese than Latin is to French, is astounding. That book is paper, but I have, for example, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, which was first published in 1621, in electronic form.

As I said, I prefer paper to electronic books, but electronic books are getting better and they do have advantages. I have a paper copy of Anatomy of Melancholy, the New York Review of Books edition in paper back. It is roughly the size and weight of a large brick and with carpal tunnel, tendinitis, and ulnar nerve entrapment, all souvenirs from years as a computer programmer, anatI have to prop Anatomy on a table to read it comfortably without prescription painkillers, which might enhance William Blake, but not the Anatomy. On the other hand, I can read an electronic edition on my Kindle or PDA without such problems.

The other great advantage to electronic editions is searchability. Computers do a much better and quicker job of skimming 1600 pages of text and finding every occurrence of “black bile” than I can, and when finding every occurrence of black bile is necessary, the electronic edition is a sure winner .

And of course, electronic books are cheaper, sometimes free, and they don’t keep the pulp mills on overtime belching sulfur and chlorine. Also, they are quick. Amazon claims you can get a book on your Kindle in less than a minute, and they come close.

There is no need to discuss the disadvantages of electronic books. Every reader I know, including me, prefers paper when all things are equal. But I will say that electronic readers are improving: the electronic ink display on the Kindle is much easier on the eyes for reading than LCDs or CRTs.  The Kindle display is limited to a gray scale and looks a bit drab, but it uses only reflected light, which is what human eyes have evolved to read; it is a genuine improvement and will very likely continue to improve.

I get many electronic books from Project Gutenberg, the source for my electronic copy of Anatomy Of Melancholy.  Gutenberg is wonderful. They have a large free collection of out-of-copyright books in the public domain that is growing all the time. Project Gutenberg is the reason my electronic books are generally old. Gutenberg makes old books easy to find and free, but I don’t like to read Gutenberg editions directly. I always process the text to suit my exact tastes on whatever display device I happen to be using. That is a perk of being both a reader and a programmer and one that might also benefit the readers of this site.

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