When I was a kid I was an avid reader, sometimes zipping through 300 books every two days or so until I finished with a series and then moved on to the next. When I was in college I got a part time job working in a book store, but ironically I started reading for pleasure a lot less at this point. I blame textbooks. Nothing takes the joy out of reading for fun like reading a bunch of dry articles and books that someone tells you to read. While I’ve read my share of books over the last 15 years, I never really recaptured that habit of spending more time in front of a good book than in front of the TV… until recently.
The funny thing is that starting in college, I did get into the habit of scrounging through the bargain bins at book stores to add books to my library. But at best I read about a book a month while acquiring far more titles than I could ever hope to get through. A few years ago I decided to try to make some headway on those books, and I’ve read pretty interesting fiction and non-fiction titles including a biography of Joseph Pulitzer, a surprisingly engaging book about made up languages, and an excellent modern day fairy tale story from Neil Gaiman.
But in the last 60 days, I’ve read about 7 books, which is about as close as I’ve ever come to recapturing my childhood joy of reading. You know what I have to thank? Modern technology and public libraries.
As much as I love the feel and smell of a good book and the experience of searching for a hidden gem at a used book store, I realized a few years ago that I really like reading eBooks on mobile devices. I zipped through Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series on a Philips Nino PDA about 10 years ago, but at the time finding legal eBooks was a bit of a chore.
Flash forward a decade and eBook devices like the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, and Barnes & Noble Nook are all over the place. But they’re hardly the only game in town. There are also dozens of excellent eBook apps for mobile devices running Android, iOS, and other mobile operating systems.
There are a few things I prefer about these mobile apps: First, they run on devices you may already have, which means you don’t have to invest in additional hardware. Second, you can read in bed with the lights out because they have backlights and don’t need a lamp (many apps also have night modes, which lets you invert the colors and read white text on a black background, which can be less jarring on the eyes in a dark room. And third, I find that it’s much easier to focus on a narrow page than a wide one. I’ve never been a speed reader, but I can read much more quickly on a narrow page because my eyes don’t get as distracted darting back and forth.
But, as I seem to recall Gizmodo‘s Brian Lam writing once (I can’t find the link at the moment), it’s also possible that the sheer act of reading a book on a gadget appeals to the geek in me.
As for the public libraries, here’s what happened a few weeks ago: the Bluefire app for iOS added support for the Adobe DRM used by most public libraries. Suddenly I could use my Philadelphia Free Library card to download digital books from the library website without leaving my house, and read them on my iPod touch. It was a magical experience, because now there were suddenly thousands of free eBooks available to me — and I had to read each one I “took out” from the library in less than three weeks before they were automatically “returned.”
Six of the seven books I’ve read in the last two months have been library books, although there are definitely some other physical titles on my shelf I want to get through. There are also plenty of public domain classics (and contemporary books) available for download which can be read using Bluefire or the much fuller-featured Stanza app for iOS. The one book I didn’t read using Bluefire last month was actually A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle, which I read using the Aldiko eBook app on my Android phone. But while it’s nice being able to read eBooks on my phone, I actually prefer using the iPod touch because it gets better battery life — and because if the battery dies, I can still make phone calls, which is more than I can say for my Google Nexus One phone.
Still, if you’re interested in reading eBooks from public libraries on Android, you might be interested to know that the latest version of the OverDrive Media Console app added support for public library DRM, and Aldiko 2.0 should be available for download soon, with Adobe DRM support for library books as well as titles from the Barnes & Noble eBook store and other sites that use that copy protection system.
In other news, I’ve added a goodreads widget to the sidebar of this web site so you can see the latest books I’ve been reading. Feel free to let me know what you’ve been reading in the comments, via goodreads, or other social tools. And by far, the best book I’ve read so far this year has to be Roxana Saberi’s Between Two Worlds, an account of Saberi’s 100 days in Evin prison in Iran last year. While parts of the book remind me of Kafka’s The Trial, Saberi also manages to paint a hopeful portrait of the future of Iran by focusing on the stories Iranians struggling against the oppressive regime as well as her own tale.