This post from Library Thing’s Thingology blog has had me thinking this week about my relationship with ebooks.

Two disclaimers:

  1. I love ebooks
  2. I hate ebooks

Yeah, I know – how totally uncontroversial. Doesn’t everyone have mixed feeling about ebooks? Does anyone love them unconditionally? Does anyone hate them with a rare and rabid passion? I suppose they must be out there…

So what do I love about ebooks? Well, first off, they’re books. They may not have all those fancy bits-of-paper-with-ink-on, but they contain words that tell stories. That’s good enough for me.

Secondly, they’re immediate. I’m a highly impatient person – I hate waiting for anything – and I’m completely hooked on the idea that if I want to read something *now*, I can. Ok, not everything is available as an ebook, but a suprising number are. Enought to keep me happy, anyway 😉 True, it might cost me a lot to read it, but that’s the price of indulgence. And…

… thirdly: so may ebooks are free! It’s almost impossible to say just how much I love Project Gutenberg. It’s a source of constant delight to me. So many books! For free! And I can do whatever I want with them! (within certain limits). What’s really important for me is that Gutenberg ebooks are platform independent. I generally choose to read them in Word if I’m on my pc, and my phone has some good text readers for me to Gutenberg on the go. In fact, Gutenberg are making their texts available in loads of formats, that can be read on almost any device.

But it’s not just Gutenberg – there are loads of good, free ebooks sites. I’m not going to go into details about that here (oh, you insist? ok ;p ), but I will give a shout-out to the Internet Archive texts collection. Sometimes, I really do like the experience of seeing the book in its original layout, rather than robbed of some of their character – as they can be – when they are reduced to just text, and formatted/fonted to your preference.

One of the things I love most about free ebooks is the serendipity involved. I don’t buy new books very often, and when I do, it’s usually by an author I know I’ll like. Most of my reading experimentation is done in the library or the charity shop. But with free ebooks, you get the freedom to try something just because you like the title. I subscribe to the Gutenberg new books rss, and I’ll go through and tag the ones I like the look of. Then when I’m bored – instant reading list!

I know you do get the same kind of low-risk serendipity in libraries, but not to the same extent – certainly not with most public libraries. They’ll have a collection development policy, which will necessarily limit what you will find. The ebooks sites don’t have that – the Internet Archive explicitly states ‘This collection is open to the community for the contribution of any type of text’. This naturally creates a greater diversity (within the bounds of public domain texts, of course) – nothing is excluded, nothing is weeded. Nothing is on loan with a 4-month reserve list!

Before I leave free ebooks, I must mention Distributed Proofreaders, who provide most of the books for Project Gutenberg. Anyone can sign up to start proofreading texts, which have been scanned and OCRd. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Well, it is! I don’t know why, but I really enjoy it. You can choose which books you work on – some really dedicated DPers work on things in miniscule columns full of Latin and Greek and obscure scientific formulae. I work mainly on children’s books, with about 100 words to the page 😉

It’s incredibly satisfying to feel that you’ve been a part of preserving this knowledge, and enabling its dissemination. I also like spotting errors (*ahem* librarian *ahem*), and puzzling out what words might be based on the context. Oddly enough, reading a few random pages of a book can be absolutely fascinating. I don’t do as much with DP as I should, but when I do make the time I love it, and vow to do more.

This has turned into a bit of a monster post, so I’ll save the hate (grr!) for part 2 (which means I have to remember to write it). A few more quick ‘things I love’:

  • Portability! Often mentioned, but the fact that I have about 100 hours of reading material on my phone – including War and Peace and 4 vols of Maupassant short stories – never fails to astound and delight me. And it’s always with me. I never used to leave the house without a paperback in my bag; now I’ll only take one for train journeys.
  • The fact that I can read ebooks while eating (assuming, as I do, that I generally eat in front of my computer) without having to juggle food and book, or concoct elaborate book-proppy-open devices. It’s on the screen – it doesn’t move, or close, or get obscured by gravy. And one finger will turn a page.
  • Left your book at home, and dying to spend lunchtime catching up with it? No problem! Just download another copy. This applies to most paid ebooks, as well as free ones – many (possibly all?) retailers allow multiple downloads of the same book. You may have to enter passwords or register a device ID, but you can get at it. And for those of us with story-addictions, that’s a great big plus.

Ok, that’s the love over. Ready for some hate? Part 2 will turn up some time after I get around to writing it 😉

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