The Books In My Hand
Reviewed: March 5, 2004
By: Dan Davidson
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
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.