Kindle & Calibre

Technology is changing our lives rapidly. New habits are being created, some old habits destroyed, and others are transformed. In particular, advances in display technology have enabled the creation of devices poised to change the way we read. Amazon’s Kindle device and the Nook from Barne’s and Noble each sport e-ink screens (e-ink or e-paper) and impressive battery life. Apple’s iPad device, though employing an LCD screen, offers reasonable e-reader capabilities and functions as a miniature PC and/or giant iPod.

Recently, woot.com was selling Amazon’s 2nd Generation 3G Kindle for $90. I had been considering getting an e-reader of some sort, and $90 was well below my ‘buy it now’ price point – I value the device as being worth ~$120. Now I had previously read some books on my iPad (or rather, UCD’s iPad), and noticed that my reading speed was impaired. I would also get some eyestrain – though not as bad as though I had been reading on a standard computer monitor, interestingly enough – when reading for great periods of time. I love the device, but it was still blown away by a physical, paper-and-ink book.

Reading on the Kindle is great. In terms of ease of reading, the e-ink display is competitive with physical books, and the small size of the screen (6″ diagonal, 3.5″x4.75″) does not prove to be a hindrance. I like the ‘next page’ buttons on both sides of the device, it lets you hold the Kindle just about any way you would hold a book. The navigation feels somewhat clunky, but given the technology and my apparent addiction to touch-screen devices, it’s probably the best they can do. (That said, an e-ink capacitive touchscreen would be wonderful.) Economically, the device is a net gain. When available, I try to purchase hardcover copies of books that I want to own, and retreat to paperback only in situations of extreme price or unavailability. That said, a copy of Thomas Hobbe’s Leviathan would cost $42 with an option to retreat to $10. The Kindle version of this classic is free, along with various others. Amazon.com has a page devoted to both their own free e-books as well as internet repositories of free e-books.

Having previously used an iPad as my e-reader, my tiny collection of e-books had been entirely in the EPUB format. Though an international standard, the Kindle does not currently support it. Also, many of the free manuscripts available online are only available as PDF or HTML documents (such as Fordham University’s excellent set of primary source documents). I was also simply using the filesystem of my Mac to synchronize and organize my library. Calibre is an all-in-one answer to e-book management and conversion. It’s free, and available on Mac, Linux and Windows. The software has an easy-to-use interface, a searchable database of your library, and simple conversion between formats. Though it is only in version 0.84, the application is full-featured and stable in my experience. The format conversions have thus far been robust, including the conversion of the PDF of On Grace and Free Will and the HTML of Anna Comnena’s Alexiad with very readable results on the Kindle. Calibre also allows you to send books to your e-reader, though I admittedly have only tested this with my Kindle. If you have an e-reader, Calibre is worth your time to try out.

My initial thought about e-books had been something along the lines of “that’s nice, but I want paper and ink.” I had concerns over the lend-ability of e-books (and I still do) as well as the rights to them (could the publisher later remotely delete them?) I’m not a complete convert, but I have changed my policy. I intend to buy books for the Kindle, and if I like them enough to reference or lend, I’ll purchase a hard-backed copy as well. I can even foresee – when I have greater capital and e-readers are cheaper – buying an extra Kindle or two as part of my library, ready to lend to anyone interested. In the end, I think that devices such as the Kindle and software like Calibre have the potential to enhance the way we read books.

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