Reading Ebooks

I am basically at the stage where I find reading paper books to be almost physically painful. I can do it if I have to but given the choice I’d much rather do in my tablet’s Kindle app or even as a PDF file. I’d positively hate to be in an non-cyberpunk apocalypse by now.

ak-readingApart from portability and ease of access across multiple platforms and devices, the thing that really seals the deal about ebooks is the ability to highlight and annotate, and crucially, the ability to get those highlights and annotations as an ordered list. I typically make dozens of highlights in literary works like fantasy or sci-fi, and hundreds and occasionally close to a thousand highlights in serious non-fiction works. I access these excerpts at this page on Amazon page and copy them over to an Evernote notebook (i.e. folder) that is exclusively dedicated to book excerpts.

This has some big advantages:

  • Very accessible, indexed, and searchable database of books whose usefulness for research grows in tandem with its overall size.
  • Makes the writing of book reviews much easier, especially if you wish to be detailed and include long quotes.
  • The contents of books you’ve read in the past, even those from several years back, can be easily recalled just by a quick skim through the highlights. This effect is well known in psychology where people start recalling massive amounts of information after getting a few relevant reminders.

That said, while this Kindle/Amazon system works, there are still some major spheres in which it falls short.

  • The biggest problem by far is that highlights are only supported for books bought from the Amazon store. This means that epubs, PDFs, etc, bought from other stores, or otherwise acquired from the Internet, cannot be highlighted and clipped over. This is of course an issue since many books aren’t available at Amazon. In particular, its national online storefronts remain remarkably fragmented for this day and age, and as such the foreign language selection is very meager. For instance, as regards Russian, pretty much only the classics and translations of popular Anglo crap like The Hunger Games is available. Neither of the two most recent high profile “political” books from France, The French Suicide by Zemmour or Submission by Houellebecq, are available in French on American Amazon.
  • One possible solution is to use a Kindle reader, read any epub, PDFs, etc. there, and copy over the highlighted material from MyClippings.txt. But reading PDFs on a Paperwhite is a pain, and besides obviously requires you to get a Kindle or a Paperwhite in the first place.
  • The Amazon/Kindle ecosystem can also be rigidly proprietary, and I’m not even talking of scandals like the “unbookening” of copies of 1984 that arise every now and then. Some books, especially the more academic ones, have a limit to how many highlights you can make. Once you pass that limit, you get the dreaded “You have reached the clipping limit for this item” and… that’s it. If you were doing serious research, congratulations, you’ve just lost a big chunk of your time for nothing (needless to say they don’t warn you of what those limits are before you buy your books). If you pay $25 for a book, you might feel that you should have the right to make as many highlights and annotations on them as you wish, and have full access to all of them. But publishers evidently disagree, on the principle that you do not “own” your ebooks in any real sense but just get regular access to them subject to certain conditions. Just as with overly intrusive DRM in video games, it hurts legitimate users way more than it hurts pirates. (Sure, the DRM in Kindle books can be stripped away using tools like Calibre, but then it would become an “outside” book and you would no longer be able to access its clippings on the web).
  • Despite being an established system, it continues to be infested with bugs, such as highlights and notes made while not connected to the Internet disappearing.
  • This is drifting into fantasyland, but I would also really like it if it were possible to highlight and clip tables, graphs, maps, images, etc. along with text. I mean it’s not like it’s hard to do manually – open up the required page, print screen, and copy over into GIMP or paint – but it is a lot more time consuming that way.

For PDF files and books, my very (substandard) solution right now is to read them and make highlights/annotations in Foxit. So far as I know, however, those highlights and annotations can’t be exported as a list of clippings.

I have not been able to find a good alternative to the Kindle/Amazon system. It does do 75% of what I want it to, which is to work across different platforms and supports highlights and annotations that can be exported. I would like to move over to something that does that plus supports “outside” files, including those in epub, fb2, and PDF format, and in the ideal scenario also supports the highlights and clipping of non-text media like tables and images.

Does something like this exist? Surely it should, in this information age… surely. But if so I haven’t found it.

If not, consider making something like this, if you have the programming skills. I’m sure there’s a market for such a product, since I can hardly be the only person obsessed with highlighting the books I read and using the accumulating clippings as a research tool.

How do you read ebooks and organize your highlights and annotations on them?

Comments

  1. AK Edit: Duplicate post.

  2. Both Le Suicide français and Soumission appear to be available in the US Kindle-Store.

    (at least that’s the way it appears to me, I use the German store and so haven’t actually tried ordering them from the American site)

  3. Anatoly Karlin says

    Thanks.

    But at my end it says, “This title is not currently available for purchase,” and only the paperbacks are available for purchase (for a cool $60 and $45, respectively).

  4. Anonymous says

    I am basically at the stage where I find reading paper books to be almost physically painful. I can do it if I have to but given the choice I’d much rather do in my tablet’s Kindle app or even as a PDF file. I’d positively hate to be in an non-cyberpunk apocalypse by now.

    Given recent geopolitical events and a real apocalypse with its EMP effect, you and your digital books will be like Henry Bemis in the Twilight Zone episode Time Enough at Last.

  5. I reviewed about two dozen books at my now-moribund blog which I may or may not revive some day. I settled into a pattern of reading them in Kindle on my iPad, highlighting as I went.

    I created a folder in Pages (the iPad’s default text editor) called Reviews. And in that folder I created a file for each review that I wrote. After making each highlight I copied it from the Amazon’s highlights page that you mentioned here and pasted it into the appropriate Pages file. And most of the time I added my resposnes to and impressions of those pasted highlights right under them. My general impressions of the book so far went there too.

    When I finished reading a book, I typed my review under the pile of pasted highlights and quick impressions, at the bottom of the Pages file.

    When I was a kid we were told in literature class to plan the structure of our papers before we wrote them. We were supposed to write little outlines – thesis, list of topics covered, conclusion. I hated that then and I’ve never outlined anything in that way as an adult.

  6. For the Ipad there is wonderful PDF-reader and ebook software available. The most eminent bibliographic software packages also exist in Ipad versions.
    If you – like me – prefer ereader screens to LCD screens, your alternatives are limited. I have a reader from Ukrainian company Pocketbook that I would not ever exchange for a Kindle. If you need a larger reader, you can get a nice one from a company in Germany (sorry, would have to look it up /also obviously more expensive).
    However, you will have to compromise. On IOS you can have every desired feature. For platform independence you would have to run a library-server type of software on a Raspberry Pi, e.g. (or Calibre on a PC maybe. I am sure there are connectors (apps). For my Android mobile those exist). On any alternative ereader there are going to be limitations regarding color and most likely graphs and tables. Pocketbook may release a reader capable of displaying CAD documents sometime in the future that would not have this drawback. Release date is uncertain, though. Price might be a concern, too.
    So you would have to be more specific. And there is zero chance that the ideal solution will somehow materialize – too uncertain an endeavour for any single person, too unprofitable for a company team.

  7. When I talked about alternative ereaders, I obviously meant readers that do not restrict you to one source for ebooks as Amazon does. Apart from Pocketbook, there is a new reader out now from Kobo. Haven’t seen it yet. The screen is likely to be excellent, but the PDF-capabilities may lag behind Pocketbook (as those of the Kindles do).
    Yet another choice is buying a reader from Chinese company Boyue. Those have Android preloaded. Trouble is that I don’t know of any reading apps with color schemes expressly optimized for e-ink screens. If you find one, it may be one that lacks more advanced features.

  8. I would positively hate being in an Apocalypse, although I might be all HERO in my thoughts of it.

  9. I love to read physical books but now I just find it easier to read epub versions on my mobile or laptop. I’m reading two books at the moment, H is for Hawk and Dead Beat of the Dresden Mysteries. I do find that my reading time shoots up because I always have my mobile on me.

  10. Thorfinnsson says

    I do not take notes, but I believe I have a few solutions to your problems.

    1. Amazon DRM is easily thwarted using the DeDRM plugin in Calibre. You technically don’t even need Calibre, but Calibre is a great program which will solve your other problems as well.
    2. Caliber allows you to convert files from one ebook or PDF format to another. You can take a PDF and convert it to the appropriate Kindle format, which makes reading PDFs on a Kindle a breeze.

    While this doesn’t address any problems you highlighted, Caliber has a few other useful capabilities such as converting RSS feeds into ebook formats and the ability to sync content across multiple devices and formats.

  11. http://www.Bookzz.org is the best!

    If it fails then your local public library system’s ebooks + Calibre + a plugin = DRM-free books.

  12. From the introduction to an Outline of History by H.G. Wells:

    It is curious to note how slowly the mechanism of the intellectual life improves. Contrast the ordinary library facilities of a middle-class English home, such as the present writer is now working in, with the inconveniences and deficiencies of the equipment of an Alexandrian writer, and one realizes the enormous waste of time, physical exertion, and attention that went on through all the centuries during which that library flourished. Before the present writer lie half a dozen books, and there are good indices to three of them. He can pick up any one of these six books, refer quickly to a statement, verify a quotation, and go on writing. Contrast with that the tedious unfolding of a rolled manuscript. Close at hand are two encyclopedias, a dictionary, an atlas of the world, a biographical dictionary, and other books of reference… No doubt a day will come when a private library and writing-desk of the year A.D. 1919 will seem quaintly clumsy and difficult; but, measured by the standards of Alexandria, they are astonishingly quick, efficient, and economical…

  13. Yevardian says

    I can’t wait until this E-Book/Kindle fad is over.

  14. Good article. Generaly agree, I wrote several blog series about books I liked that would have been impossible without the ability to search a book for a word or phrase.

    My main regret about e-books is that you cannot donate them to your local library, or give them away to friends when you are done. Public libraries in my part of the US accept book donations. They either resell them to supplement their budget, or to stock their shelves. For many years I liked looking at all the books on my shelves, but most I had no intention of ever reading again. Much of the information in the non-fiction books is available on the internet. An element in keeping them was vanity, “look how well read I am.” I need to go through them and donate more. I’ve got college text books in my attic that haven’t seen the light in 20 years.