Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Whatcha Reading?

My wife and I were talking the other day, when I mentioned that I had read "my book" while riding a stationary bike. She laughed and asked, "Which one? You are always reading six books."

Little does she know.

Not only do I usually have a half-dozen books of various kinds going, I have that many again, or more, in progress on my Tablet. Many are technical, some are for pure enjoyment, several are literary works I never got around to in school, quite a number are of a spiritual bent.

I try never to go anywhere without at least one of the books I am reading with me. I prefer to carry a second (or third!) or a couple of magazines, too. You never know when you'll have to wait somewhere or what kind of reading the environment will be conducive to, and it is good to be prepared. But, carrying around those extra volumes can be bothersome and the magazines tend to get dog-eared and wrinkled long before I have finished them.

I haven't found a good solution for the magazines yet, but there are two programs I use regularly that make reading on the Tablet a pleasure and keep me unencumbered by most of the paper I used to carry. (I must confess, though, that I usually still do have a book or magazine with me.)

One of these programs is, of course, Adobe Acrobat Reader. Acrobat's .PDF file format is widely used on the Internet and a lot of the technical stuff I read is in this format. It is great for works where the layout must be just so: technical drawings, for example, or works where a diagram must be positioned in a specific way relative to the text. I won't go further into this as it is pretty widely known.

The other main program I use for reading on my Tablet is Microsoft Reader. Microsoft has provided an excellent little program in Reader that allows me to treat my Tablet as not just a book, but as a library of books. MS Reader is an underappreciated gem found on Tablet PCs and available free for any recent Microsoft operating system, including the Pocket PC OS.

Reader has a unique approach to presenting the book being read. The application runs at a fixed size and you can't resize it. If you switch your Tablet between landscape and portrait modes, Reader will resize itself to a new size, but it picks it. You don't. Not only that, but it repaginates the book you are reading to fit the new page size. The reason it operates in this peculiar fashion is that Reader always configures itself so as to present an easy-to-read page. If you have ever tried to read a web page that was very wide, you know that it is easy to lose the next line when your eyes scan back to the left. On the other hand, if the column is too narrow, reading seems a choppy rather than smooth-flowing activity. By taking control of the page height and width and keeping them in a reasonable ratio, Reader can consistently present a page that is comfortable to read. Because of the way it handles text, I have finally found reading on a computer as comfortable as reading paper. (Though nothing beats the feel of an old, well-worn book.)

Reader uses a specific format for its books. It would be great if it could read straight text files but it can't. The .LIT extension on a file identifies it as a Reader book. By default, your Tablet has only one such book, Microsoft Reader Help. Useful, I suppose, but not the most enthralling read. For Reader to be useful, you will have to build your library.

One way to do this, of course, is to purchase e-books. A number of commercial books are available in the .LIT format. You can find some on by going to the books page and clicking on "E-Books & E-Docs" in the browse box on the left of the page. The real treat, though, and one way I've built my library is to find free e-books formatted for Reader.

There are a number of sites on the Internet where free e-books are readily available. A word of warning, though: some of them are pretty weird, with a focus on the occult and strange sci-fi. Others are more useful to us Christians (unless, I suppose, you are researching the occult or strange science fiction).

One place where I have gotten a number of free e-books is from the Microsoft Reader Catalog of eBooks. (No one seems to know how e-book/ebook/eBook is definitively spelled, so I'll use whatever spelling of e-book seems appropriate.) This site mixes for-sale e-books in with about 1500 free e-books. To see only the free books, use this link. Most of the free books on this site are hosted elsewhere, so by paying attention to the site you are actually downloading from, you can find other free sites.

One of the biggest of these is the University of Virginia, with approximately 1800 free e-books at their site. In addition to a good general selection, they have a few "religious" books of interest: individual books of the King James Bible and Revised Standard Version, and writings of Calvin, Luther, and Augustine.

Another great source for books of interest to Christians is Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Here you can find .LIT files of great books from the likes of John Bunyan, G.K. Chesterton, Dante, Jonathan Edwards, and George McDonald. All of the books are out of copyright (so you won't see C.S. Lewis or other recent authors) and free for the downloading.

CCEL also has books in a number of other formats. In fact, the majority of its books aren't available in .LIT format. In my next post, I'll tell how I get around this and can turn almost any format e-book into a .LIT file (or a .PDF file if that format is more appropriate) and, best of all, do it for free, too.

A couple of last little details worth noting:

MS Reader can handle many languages besides English. In fact, several of the free e-books on the MSLIT site are language dictionaries. CCEL has books in a couple of non-English languages, though I didn't see any .LIT formatted files. There were a number of .PDF files, however. Hopefully, the tips I give next time will help anyone interested in converting the text files for Reader.

Reader has a built-in dictionary so you can look up words while you are reading. Right-click on the word and select Lookup... from the menu. If you have other language dictionaries installed, you can also translate the word by changing dictionaries on the fly.

Reader can read the books to you. It is a rather robotic and flat voice (you have your choice between three different but equally flat voices) but it does a decent job.

You can vary the font size and ClearType settings to make the books easier on your eyes.

You can use bookmarks within the texts to mark places for later lookup.

You can use ink annotations within the text. This is not perfect when you switch orientations, but is a nice feature nonetheless.

By changing the function of the jog-dial on your Tablet PC to act as PageUp and PageDown you can read without using the pen.

Lastly, a word of caution: I have found reading in Reader so book-like, that I really do treat my Tablet as if it were a book. Normally this is fine. However, one evening when I was pretty tired I was lying down reading and nodded off. I was rudely awakened when my Tablet fell on my face, breaking one of my front teeth. That never would have happened with a paperback.


Blogger Rob Bushway said...

Fantastic article, Mark.

8:46 PM  
Blogger Warren said...

Have you looked at Zinio Reader for the magazines? The only problem is that you have to subscribe through them -- nice thing is, the magazines seem pretty cheap through them. The reader itself is nice, and easy to use.

I used to use it a lot, on some free magazines they sent me sample subscriptions to, and never had a problem with it. I THINK the url is, but I'm away from home and don't have that link with me.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Mark Payton said...

Thanks for the feedback, Warren. Zinio Reader came installed on my Tablet, but I never did like it very much. I don't think the magazine metaphor translates very well to a computer screen, at least for me. I always found the faux page turning and zooming in and out to read an article annoying.

The Missouri School of Journalism is looking at interface issues with a focus on newspapers that I think is definitely on the right track for both newspapers and magazines. I wrote about it fairly extensively on The Vermont Slate, my other blog. The article is at if you are interested in reading about it.

5:18 AM  
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