Last updateFri, 18 Sep 2020 11am

Curl up with an e-book and stay at home

Finding good books in English is difficult in the best of times, but it becomes a major headache when a pandemic has you under siege.

pg7aOn March 20, my favorite bookshop in Guadalajara, La Perla Books, closed its doors in solidarity with the Stay at Home directive.

As a consequence, I am resuscitating a topic I presented in these pages not long ago: E-books to solve your reading problems. In case you pooh-poohed the idea the last time around, now that Covid-19 has us confined to quarters, I think you should take another look at the subject.

As I mentioned previously, anyone but a millennial has an automatic prejudice against replacing the good old paper book with an electronic device. “I love the feel and the look of a book,” you say, “and I hate to read anything on a computer screen.”

I felt the same, but I can assure you that the nostalgia for paper, will not bother you for long and you will soon find that your Kindle or whatever actually weighs less than a typical paperback ... and turning its pages is far easier (just a tap on the screen will do the trick), but guess what? The screen of an e-book reader is not at all like a computer’s. An electronic paper surface (such as E ink), for example, is non-glare, non-radiating and not lit from behind. I found it was as readable as paper and totally usable in the brightest sunshine. But the greatest argument for e-readers is, in my opinion, the ease with which you can instantly change the size of the letters to suit the needs of your own eyes.

The one disadvantage I’ve found: if you fall asleep while reading, your Kindle, Kobo or Nook may slide off your belly, hit the floor and never work again. Solution: make your own loop strap by attaching a long piece of elastic to the back of your device with a trusty, indestructible product like Shoe Goo.

pg7bIf you opt for a Kindle, that bestseller you heard about will download into it (with no work on your part) a half-second after you pay for it on Amazon. Now, if you’re upset that e-books cost about the same as paper books, note that Amazon regularly drops the prices of certain e-books literally to nothing or almost nothing on certain days. To find websites that announce these short-lasting bargains, just Google one or all of the following: Free Kindle Books & Tips, Kindle Nation Daily, or Kindle Buffet. Each of these sources lists different bargain books.

Want to read the classics? You’ll find over 60,000 of them on the web, available free of charge at Project Gutenberg, said to be the oldest digital library in the world and containing mostly older literary works published before 1924.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Project Gutenberg is a nonprofit organization that got its start on July 4, 1971, when a student at the University of Illinois, Michael Hart, decided to type the U.S. Declaration of Independence into the school’s computer system for distribution free of charge.  Hart then went on to type in the works of William Shakespeare and the Bible.

It’s hard to believe, but it seems Hart transcribed around 100 books over the following twenty years and in time the project grew to include thousands of volunteers around the world. In the 1990s, scanning (with Optical Character Recognition) began to replace transcribing and the number of public works in the library grew to a thousand in 1997.

Optical Character Readers, of course, make mistakes and through an organization called Distributed Proofreaders, an army of volunteers work to correct them. Thanks to their efforts, nearly 40,000 scanned books have been added to Project Gutenberg, which, by the way, now has books in 50 different languages.

pg7dAs for me, the first book I downloaded from Project Gutenberg was The Gentle Grafter, a collection of great short stories with surprise endings by O. Henry. I enjoyed this book when I came upon it in the library of my high school, all those many years ago. Today the slang is just a wee bit out of date, but many of the stories are as funny and entertaining now as they were then.

All the above sources are legal, but if you agree with Ben Franklin, who gave us the free public library, that good books ought to be shared, you might also visit Z-Library at b-ok.org, a website “registered in Switzerland” (but who knows where it really is) with over 5,029,804 popular and scientific books and 77,498,431 articles. By the way, Urlvoid Website Reputation Checker says this site is safe!

No matter what you think of Ben Franklin, lots of public libraries in the United States and Canada will be happy to lend you e-books on a regular basis ... just check!

Once you’ve downloaded some of your favorite books, you need a way to get them into your Nook, Kindle, Kobo or whatever. Fortunately, there is a free program called calibre (yes, with a small c) which makes it dead easy to download those e-books straight into your e-reader, converting each title into the proper format you need, no matter which brand of device you’re using.

pg7cBut calibre does much more than that. It’s your personal library catalog, listing all the books you have, authors’ names, descriptions and images of the covers. And if any of the data about a book is incorrect, you can click on the edit button and fix the mistake, or you can download correct info about your book from the internet, and maybe change the look of the cover to something you like better.

In addition to all that, calibre has its own built-in e-reader, which, once again, is extremely easy to use.

This excellent program was developed by Kovid Goyal, a CalTech graduate with a doctorate in quantum computing who lives in Mumbai India ... and yes, Kovid can help us to battle Covid!

His calibre is a truly intuitive program that everyone from small kids to grandmas find easy to use.  Well, we all know how good little kids are on their smartphones, but if grandma likes calibre, so will you!

At this point you may be saying, “OK, I’m convinced it’s easy to read an e-book using calibre, but how much fun is it to read a novel while you’re sitting down in front of a computer? How about if I want to read The Gentle Grafter while I’m lying in bed?”

Well, you could go buy a Kindle. But if that’s not in your immediate plans, your smartphone will do almost as well.  OK, the smartphone screen is pretty small, but you can instantly enlarge the text to the size you want and flicking to the next page is really easy. All you have to do is download an app for reading e-books, for example, Media365, which is free. Next, you can email yourself whichever e-books you download from the sources mentioned above (as an attachment). Then open Media365 on your phone, tap on the + sign and finally choose “Import All Books.” Now you can stretch out on your bed or sofa and begin reading The Gentle Grafter. But, of course, should you fall asleep, that could be the end of your mobile ... but not mine because, as you may have guessed by now, I have a homemade strap attached to that, too.

Happy reading!

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