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The Books In My Hand

Reviewed: March 5, 2004
By: Dan Davidson
Publisher:
, $0.00

This week I’d like to explore a slightly different type of reading. When I upgraded my PDA (personal digital assistant) last summer I found that the expanded capabilities off the new Palm Zire included software called the Palm Reader and the potential to download entire books for reading on the handheld device.

I have tried reading on my laptop before. There are many websites out there that contain free versions of classic literature (IPL.org - the Internet Public Library; Project Gutenberg, etc.) which you can download to your computer and read from your favorite word processing program or as Adobe PDF (portable document format) files.

I tried a novel from the Shadow series of pulp adventure stories and G.K. Chesterton’s classic thriller/spoof The Man Who Was Thursday. The end results were okay, but posed no threat whatsoever to the pleasures of curling up with a good book.

Reading on a handheld PDA is a bit closer to the real thing. You’re not plugged in to anything; you can take it where you like; it does fit nicely in your hand; you can curl up with it.

There’s a lot of free material out there to begin with. Aside from the sites I’ve mentioned, which require you to copy and paste, there are sites such as Blackmask.com, which carry a lot of popular fiction. The site takes its name from the old Blackmask magazine, which was the first home of such worthies as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Some of the material there has to be purchased, but a lot of it is in the public domain and can simply be downloaded. I picked another Shadow novel and one from the Doc Savage series and tried them out. They’re short books and I put them away during a series of lunch breaks.

More challenging was Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary, the first of the Tommy and Tuppence series, which I read as a Word-to-Go file. It was a thicker book and it taught me the limitations of that format. I had to divide it in half as the single file was too big and caused my handheld to freeze. It was a clever adventure, set between the two World Wars, but not her best work. Others featuring this pair are much better reading.

Next I needed to read a sociology text one weekend for a course I’m taking. I ordered it online from a source called Fictionwise and had it on my screen 20 minutes later. The end result was a good paper for me. The book was called The Diffusion of Innovations, by Everett M. Rogers, (Free Press, 2003). Despite the imposing title, it’s essentially a book about how new ideas percolate through society until they become the new normal. Even if you don’t like the abstract theory involved there are a lot of interesting anecdotes and cases studies which make the point quite well. In Palm Reader format I could also see the diagrams and charts on my handheld and look at pictures.

The only oddity was the paging. In Adobe PDF documents the original page numbers of the hard copy are retained. In Palm Reader format each screen is a page, so the Rogers’ book had 3217 pages, rather than the three or four hundred or so in the hard copy edition.

For fiction on the Palm Reader I tried Nancy Holder’s Chosen, a novelization of the episodes which made up the final, seventh season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was fairly faithful to the shows, each chapter being more or less an episode. Holder tried to capture the style of the show by using Buffyisms in the narrative voice she adopted for the novel. Was this successful? As Xander Harris would probably put it, “Not so much.” The story moves right along and it did have a sense of connection to the series, but I would rather have heard the tricky dialogue coming from the characters than from the author.

When I wanted to read the Rogers’ book I had to get a new version of the Palm Reader software in order to do it (something that just doesn’t happen with my built-in organic software). To sweeten that deal, Palm bundled the download with four e-books (for “electronic books”, as they are being called), one of which was Peter David’s The New Frontier (Pocket Books, 1997, 704 pages) an omnibus collection of four short novels in a new Star Trek series which branches out from the “Star Trek: the Next Generation” show. There are some marginal characters from that series who have major roles here, and then a whole new set of cast members, including the captain of the Excalibur, Mackenzie Calhoun.

Peter David is a long time scribe for hire who plays well in other peoples’ sandboxes, which is to say that he has no trouble fitting his ideas into established frameworks, being true to the original concept, and yet tweaking it to make the story his own. He writes comic books and original novels of his own, as well as novelizations for television and film.

The New Frontier series is set on the fringes of the Federation. Calhoun, originally a resistance fighter on his home planet and former undercover agent for the Federation, is an unorthodox captain who solves his problems in unusual ways. He has to struggle to work within the Prime Directive while being true to his own sense of what is right.

Will e-books replace paper? I don’t think so, at least not until they do something about the battery life on PDAs. On the other hand, books in this format do make excellent reading in darkened movie theatres while you’re waiting for the picture to begin.

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