Electronically elementary: Readers and reading material plentiful online

Electronically elementary: Readers and reading material plentiful online

In the summer after I finished college, my older sister bought me a wonderful two-volume collection of Sherlock Holmes – all 56 short stories and the four novels, with critical essays, long annotations attempting to establish actual dates and places from “the canon” and reproductions of the original Sidney Paget drawings of Holmes, Watson and others from the tales.

I’d never read anything by Arthur Conan Doyle, but that summer I devoured the Holmes stories. Read them all, straight through. One of the best birthday presents I've ever received.

I mention this because I’ve been playing around lately with electronic books and readers, on a tablet PC I rescued from eBay.

I read a brief how-to article in Popular Science and, as a commenter to the article pointed out, all the author did was install some software and change a display setting and voila!

The article was headlined, “How I Built a DIY Kindle.” Not much “building” there, but the headline worked: It made me read.

I’ve now installed three e-readers and have begun to test them, on a Fujitsu tablet running Windows XP Tablet Edition. (You could do the same on most computers, desktops and laptops included. I'm using the tablet because it's there.)

So far, I’m using Adobe Digital Editions (which uses the Air platform). I’ve installed Microsoft’s eReader and Calibre’s free reader (and “e-book management system”) as well as Zinio’s magazine reader.

All the readers are free. I’ll post an update on the readers as I have the chance to use them.

But if you’re thinking about going with an e-reader, and wondering about content, you will find there’s plenty out there. I’d like to highlight two that are free, both with a local connection.

The Champaign Public Library offers its patrons “Media Mall” on its website, a place where you can download both audio and e-reader versions of books. It takes a bit of setup on your computer to use either, but once you do, you’ll have hundreds of books at your disposal. When I was getting ready for a trip by car to Washington, D.C. in the spring, I used the library’s audiobooks setup to download three books and load them onto my iPod. I listened to two on the drive. They worked perfectly; chapters were marked and the books picked up where I left off when I would stop for gas or to rest.

Now, I’ve gone looking for e-books there, and while the selection is good, you will find that many of the popular titles are already “checked out,” and you may have to place a hold on the one you want.

One thing to remember: After you’ve logged in (with your library card number and a four-digit PIN), you’ll need to choose a library. Don’t bother looking for Champaign; it’s not there. You want Lincoln Trail Libraries System, which will appear in the dropdown menu. Any library in the Lincoln Trail system can access the system directly at Media Mall's site.

Another great source for e-books is the Gutenberg Project, founded in Champaign-Urbana by Michael Hart in 1971. More than 100,000 books whose copyrights have expired now are digitized on the site, and the search function is simple but useful. You can download books in a variety of formats, from simple text and html to Adobe's epub format (audio, too).

Which gets me to my Sherlock Holmes story. I’ve decided it’s time to reread all those Holmes stories, so I’ve downloaded two from the Gutenberg project: my favorite of the novels, The Valley of Fear, and the short story that started it all, A Study in Scarlet.

While poking around the Gutenberg site, you’ll see a Top 100 link. Prepare to give up some time; it lists the top 100 downloads, by title or author, for the previous day, week and month.

Because Gutenberg has books whose copyright has expired (and the copyright of a work doesn’t expire until, mostly, 70 years after the author’s death), you won’t find any Harry Potter here.

So the five most downloaded authors for the last 30 days are, in order, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Nietzsche is 31, Kafka is 34. And for all you Twilight fans out there, Bram Stoker is at number 42.  

And by the way, Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes never said, "Elementary, my dear Watson."

Also by the way, the Robert Downey Jr. Holmes movie was great fun, but for Holmes, give me Jeremy Brett any day.

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Julie Wurth wrote on July 25, 2010 at 12:07 am
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How could the library's e-books be "checked out"? Shouldn't the downloads be unlimited? I was curious about how this would work with e-readers -- and why anyone would pay Amazon or whoever to download e-books if libraries are going to have them available for free, with the same level of convenience, etc. I don't have an e-reader yet, if that's not already obvious....

Mike Howie wrote on July 27, 2010 at 9:07 am
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What happens is you "check out" the book for a limited time, just as you do with a physical book. The file has an expiration date and becomes unreadable after that date passes. Then the library can make its license available to someone else.