October 27, 2007

Electronic Books Have Their Uses

I had occasion to look into electronic books while preparing for my recent trip to the Alps. I wanted reading material for the train and plane coming home, but didn't want to carry a bound swatch of paper for two weeks before I could read it. Since I was taking a PDA, I looked into electronic books.

My first impressions were disappointment. The titles on offer at several of the vendors were limited and decidedly third-rate, for the most part. Anything of any quality at all was relatively expensive -- what you'd pay for a trade paperback edition of the same work. This was discouraging, but I did select a couple of Hemingway titles that I hadn't read before: To Have and To Have Not and For Whom the Bell Tolls. In spite of having been written over fifty years ago (are they in the public domain?), they were $10 each.

The next barrier was selecting a reader. There were three formats available from the vendor I selected and you bought the e-book version for the reader you selected. The readers are free. Thinking this was the simplest route, I chose the Microsoft Reader.

I downloaded the MS Reader and installed it. Next, I had to "activate" it, which Microsoft is very big on and can be a significant barrier to getting their software to work. I'm not sure why one has to activate free software. In any case, I was unable to successfully activate the software and was, therefore, unable to use it with the e-books I'd just purchased.

My annoyance was great enough that I worked my way through the trackless swamp of Microsoft's support pages to find a link to a support function for the Reader. From what I could tell, the Reader is something of a deprecated product. There is no Reader support page, so I used the closest thing, a more general Mobile page. To their credit, I did get a rather stilted message advising me to do a couple of things that didn't work.

By that time, however, I'd downloaded another reader, "Mobipocket," and contacted the e-books vendor, who very quickly and kindly shifted my subscription to that reader. I should have gone with the Adobe reader in the beginning. It shouldn't be that expensive, nor that hard to get an e-book to work.

In the end, I found that it worked surprisingly well. The reader I used worked in portrait or landscape mode, offered excellent text clarity and zoom control, and was quick to turn a page with just a button click on the PDA. It opened each time from the spot that I'd stopped the time before. There were lots of other features for searching and moving about in the text, but I didn't use them much, once I started reading. I turned off the progress bar at the bottom, because it took screen space and displayed a discouragingly high page count.

The first one, To Have and To Have Not, was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Brennan, and Lauren Bacall and stands as one of my favorite movies. As a novel, though, it's something of a mess. Only the Bogart character, Harry Morgan, Brennan’s, Eddie, and a fragment of the plot where Morgan asserts that he won't carry human cargo, because that cargo can talk, made it into the movie. It's just as well, because William Faulkner made a fine screenplay out of those elements. Still, there is some wonderful writing in the book, especially when he's writing about the Gulf Stream and fishing upon it.

I found For Whom the Bell Tolls stunningly beautiful, a masterpiece. It is taut and focused. Its characters stand out, individuals. The language, aided by the transliteration of the formal address in Spanish to English, full of "thee" and "thou," is lyrical. And the action gathers relentless tension as the moment of the clash of armies arrives and breaks upon the characters. It must have been heartbreaking to write through the cruelty and waste of the Spanish Civil War, when it is so clear that the author loved the people and the country.

I found it easy to use an e-book in the same way I use a printed book. Once I got past the problem with buying and displaying the book on my PDA, the experience of reading was very similar. I'd use an e-book again, under similar circumstances, and more often if there were more, high-quality selections and they didn't cost so much.

1 comment:

Rummy said...

About Public Domain: the laws are always changing but I think 75 years has something to do with it. The most recent works available on Gutenberg are from the twenties.