Don't Judge An E-Book By It's Cover

Years ago I made a resolution with two purposes in mind: to advance my career as a writer, and to prod my self along the slippery and razor-sharp path of enlightenment. I resolved to read every day, for at least thirty minutes, and to start with the very best books. (Other reading was permitted, but only after reading at least half an hour from the great books list.) A few days after making that promise to myself, I was offered work care-taking for a house and dog in a small rural village in an isolated region in the south of France. That offer was too rare to be refused, but since there were no libraries in the area, I wondered how the job could be accepted without breaking my literary study plan.

The solution was weighty and ponderous. I packed 200 of the classics, in paperbacks, into two large duffel bags, and set out on a bicycle with the books and camping gear piled eight-feet high, tied to the back rack of the bike. Whenever I rode on the main highways, busloads of tourists would stop and ask if they could take a photograph. Not of me ("Stand back, please, you’re ruining the photo!") but of the overloaded bike.

Today, of course, the whole project would be less adventuresome and more convenient. One could travel lighter by carrying electronic literature, otherwise known as e-books. E-books can be read in many ways: from files on your personal computer or laptop screen, on the World Wide Web, or on the new breed of hand-held devices such as the Rocket e-book, the Palm Connected Organizers, the SONY CLIE and the Pocket PC’s (Jornada and iPAQ) made by HP and Compaq. E-books can be stored on your computer as files; slid into your computer via CD- ROM; or, most fashionably these days, downloaded to your computer over the Net.

E-books: Advantages and Disadvantages

Compared to paper books, e-books have two disadvantages. First, you need a device to read them. You need to purchase this device, learn how to use this device, maintain and repair this device, supply power to this device, protect this device from dirt and injury and secure this device from the too-curious hands of thieves, relatives, and friends. The other disadvantage to this newfangled reading experience is that, compared to the old-fashioned paper-book way, reading e-books can feel extremely strange. One can type for long hours on a computer screen, but something in the nature of literature makes reading from a paper book softer, friendlier, more relaxing and more personal than reading from a computer screen.

Despite my fear of the misuse of computer power, and my sometime sympathies with the neo-Luddites, it is undeniable that electronic literature offers many advantages compared to paper books, and here are six. 1) E-books are portable. 2) E-books are inexpensive to make and reproduce (thus out-of-print books can be out of print but preserved in the ebook version). 3) E-books are easily updated. 4) With e-books, the size of the type can be changed. 5) E-books are searchable—in seconds, you can locate any text in the entire book. 6) E-books save paper and preserve precious trees.

With all that on the plus side, a number of critics (Jonathan Raban, of The Washington Post is one) have been concerned that the rise of electronic books will cause the downfall of good reading. E-book publishing is the player piano of literature. Publishing electronically is so simple and so cheap that—almost effortlessly—anyone can push a few keystrokes and publish an electronic book.

O brave new world, that has such e-books in it! Now you can pay a few dollars and download Mrs. Grumple’s recipes; Aunt Fanny’s family history (including the episode about Uncle Harry’s glass eye which fell into a pile of marbles on a sandy beach); an 8-year-old child’s essay about her summer vacation; and classic bodice-rippers such as "How I Found Rome-Ants At A Picnic In Italy." Thousands of e-books of this type will soon be available for sale via the Web. They are books which plummet from the writer’s keyboard directly to the indiscriminating public without help from professional editors, or any editors at all. The opening sentence of one of these, which I found on the Web, began: "He placed his hand on her leg and moved it upward like a beast of pray." Although the author has invented a new genre—the erotic-religious—that opening gaffe discouraged me from reading more.

And yet, the e-book cornucopias are filled with fruits as well as nuts. Thanks to e-book publishing, there is now a potential antidote for the literary equivalent of the problem which a poet described as "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness in the desert air."

Internet Creates Opportunities for Writers

Electronic publishing—if it can break free from the best-seller mentality which corrupts print publishing—has the potential to produce far more good than harm. Writers who would never have a chance in the slush piles of New York commercial houses, now have a fighting chance in the plush styles of e-publishing. Self-publishing is now more viable than ever; and the small presses and university presses can publish economically, without perishing. One notable example, the author M.J. Rose, received well-deserved recognition when her self-published novel Lip Service became the first e-book discovered online by the mainstream publishing industry. Ms. Rose’s new novel, In Fidelity, was released as an e-book in November 2000 and will be available in paperback in January 2001. Rose writes an informative and insightful column about e-books for Wired News. More about her writings and doings can be found on her website, at http://www.mjrose.com

The Internet, as a communications tool, excels at the work of transmitting to us everything which is sudden, changeable, fleeting, and new. Yet the net—and the entire nexus of electronic communications—can also become a valuable instrument for preserving and promoting the Olde: the great works in our literary heritage. "What is a classic?" asked the essayist St. Beuve. "A difficult question!" he replied to himself ... And for those readers who love the classic books of Western literature, it is now possible to read good books and great books in electronic format, either for free or for pennies per e-book.

The first source to offer books as electronic text was Project Gutenberg (http://www.promo.net/pg/). PG is thriving, and currently offers almost 3,000 books, in the ASCII format, all free for the taking by download. Two other excellent sources for free electronic books are The World E-text Library (http://netlibrary.net/WorldHome.html) and Virtual Library of Virginia (VIVA) at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/eng-on.html.

But for some readers, reading ASCII on a ghost-white page is like chewing on raw tofu. If you don’t like reading plain ASCII text, then you can find one of the new reader programs for ASCII, which improve the reading experience to make it look a little more (or a lot more) like a book.

A new solution to the problem of finding an attractive way to read e-books has been recently de-vised by John Everett, creator of Zippedbooks (http://www.zippedbooks.com). Hit on the Zippedbooks web site and you are welcomed to 27 books in a variety of categories, all of which you can download and read for free, using the Zippedbooks reader program. The typestyle is good looking, and Everett has recently added the option of viewing the book in different fonts. In fact, when I read my first Zippedbook e-book, Tom Brown’s School Days, I noted that the Zippedbook default font (in Goudy Old Style) was more attractive than the default font of the leading commercial e-book reader, Microsoft Reader.

Microsoft Reader gives you more bells and whistles, but Zippedbooks provides all the necessary features, including bookmarks, and the ability to search through the book. For e-book publishers, zippedbooks offers a method of making e-books, with excellent documentation which both explains the process and teaches you about Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) along the way. Everett’s explanation of CSS is admirable for it’s succinctness and clarity. All told, with this much e-reading and e-publishing power and ease, Zipped-books is a contender for the title of best free e-book reader available today.

Earlier in this article I listed one of the advantages of e-books: they are inexpensive. With the cost of hardcover and paperback books rising steadily, and the importance of making good books available to all persons, poor and middle class and rich, this cost factor is something to consider. One company which sells the classics at an affordably low price is Classic BookShelf Ltd. Their ebook on CD-ROM, Classic Bookshelf 2.1 (for Windows 95/98/NT) contains 200 classic books written by 46 well-known authors. For about $29 dollars, you’re paying a mere 15 cents per book.

Obviously, selecting 200 classics from the pack is a difficult task: recall the uproar last year when Modern Library published their list of the 100 best books in the 20th Century. Yet the selection on this CD is superb. My favorite of the masters are here: Dickens, Cervantes, Flaubert, George Eliot, Thoreau, Dostoyevsky, Tol-stoy, Wilde, Blake, Twain and Hans Christian Andersen. And dozens of lesser known surprises including the marvelous Five Children and It by E. Nesbitt; The Water Babies (by Charles Kingsley) and Daniel Defoe’s sequel to Robinson Crusoe. (In the original book Robinson Crusoe, the hero swims out nakedly to get some food, and when he returns his pockets are stuffed with biscuits. Perhaps the sequel explains this literary miracle, or introduces us to others.)

The Classic Bookshelf reader program gives you the ability to search the book, export the text to ASCII or HTML; and claims that it can change the page and text color to more than 16 million choices—although I did not attempt to verify that claim. One unadvertised bonus to this e-book is that a number of the books come with exceptionally insightful introductions about the author and the works. Readers can take a test read at the Classic Bookshelf web site: http://www.classicbookshelf.com.

Aldous Huxley, the man who read the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover, has written: "Every man who knows how to read has it in his power to magnify himself, to multiply the ways in which he exists, to make his life full, significant, and in-teresting."

What will happen in the future of electronic publishing? A difficult question! Publishing e-books may bring us high-tech versions of those same laughably lousy bestsellers: as the Yiddish saying goes: "The same old yente except for the veil." Or e-books may prove to be a true revolution, where everyone has access to the best books, and every individual possesses some skill to distinguish the superficial from the real.

Michael Pastore is the editor of BookLovers Review and the author of more than ten works of fiction and non-fiction.

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