Reading Milton’s Paradise Lost

One of the nice things about using an e-reader is the abundance of free Public Domain books. There are a lot of them. I always had access to them even before I got my Kobo, through Project Gutenburg, but really, who wants to read a book off a computer screen?

I chose to tackle Paradise Lost because it’s one of those books that “everyone has read,” which is to say, it’s a book that everyone makes reference to, whether they’ve read it or not and whether they realise it or not. The book is written in the kind of beautiful and florid prose that would be absolutely pretentious if someone tried to copy today, but because it’s Paradise Lost, Milton can get away with it.

The most interesting thing to me was discovering famous clichés in the work that I didn’t know beforehand were famous clichés from Paradise Lost. The most famous example is probably the phrase “all hell broke loose,” which now appears in Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction. It’s number six: “Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose’. This rule doesn’t require an explanation.” An angel is mocking Satan for leaving hell and he asks why the rest of the fallen angels didn’t come with him when he left.

Another unexpected one for me was finding the phrase, “His Dark Materials,” the title for an anti-Christian children’s book trilogy in Paradise Lost. I knew that Pullman had a literary background and that he drew from a number of religious sources to write his books, but it was still a bit of a shock to see that.

One last thing that I noticed: Eve was a Parselmouth. Possibly Adam too. Like they say, “Everyone knows that’s the mark of a dark wizard.”

Book review: “The End of Wall Street” by Roger Lowenstein

I just finished my latest library book, The End of Wall Street, by Roger Lowenstein. I would describe this book as a good medium-level description of the economic factors that led to the financial crisis of 2008. The author does a good job of not getting bogged down in the boring mathematical details (it’s short—only 358 pages, after all), while steering away from becoming such a high-level description that it’s inaccurate or un-informative. The focus is on the motivations of the major actors, and the policies that brought about the crisis of 2008.

While the author criticizes the laissez-faire policies and regulatory practices that brought about 2008, it’s pretty balanced, based in evidence and well-cited facts, and he never becomes preachy. He’s critical, but then, given what happened, it would be difficult (and probably inaccurate) to be otherwise while writing about this material.

If you’re like me, you’ll need to keep a sticky note handy where you can write the meanings of acronyms you come across. (Wait, what’s a CDO again?) The book is fairly quick-paced, and even though I don’t have any formal training economics, I was glad to have read it.

Borrowing e-books from the library

I’m currently reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I borrowed the e-book from the Québec National Library. Just the process of borrowing an e-book has been fascinating. When an e-book is borrowed from the library, it is no longer available for other users to borrow, because the library uses a particular kind of DRM software.

This is interesting to me because traditional borrowing of library books had the “scarcity” of the books (and thus the protection of the author/publisher’s rights) built-in to the “hardware” itself. That is to say, by the nature of the physical book itself, two people could not be borrowing it from the library at the same time.

This is manifestly not true of digital materials. Much to the chagrin of publishers of all types, it’s difficult to stop people from sharing media if it’s digital, and in fact it takes a good deal of effort to stop people from doing so, while still allowing for legitimate uses of the media in question.

I’m 67% of the way through, and I’ve come across a couple typos. Nothing major—nothing that changes the content of the book, or even makes it much more difficult to read. I don’t know why, but I can’t resist keeping a record of when I find typos.

  • “It isn’t the sort ofthing you ask questions about …” p. 29
  • “I press my hands against the sides of my thighs, breath in, set out along the hall …” p. 142

Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines here, but when I saw these typos, I started thinking about maps. Stay with me, here. I don’t know if it’s actually true, but it used to be said that map-makers would put fake streets—small ones that no one would notice—into their maps, so that if someone copied their work, they would know that it was copied.

I’m sure it’s possible to find software that will strip an e-book of its DRM, and so I wonder if these typos are like that—little “fake streets” that the publisher has inserted into the e-book, so that if it’s copied, they’ll know. If they were sophisticated about it, they could probably even make up a way of encoding which library and even which user stripped the DRM by inserting particular “typos” into the borrowed e-book.

So here’s my question for all you Margaret Atwood fans out there: Does anyone have a physical copy of The Handmaid’s Tale? If you do, can you tell me if the typos are there in your copy? Also, does anyone else feel like borrowing the e-book from the library to see if the typos are there (or in the same place)?

Side-note: How long before we drop the hyphen from “e-book” and “e-reader” the way we dropped the hyphen from e-mail?

Review of the Kobo Touch e-reader

I recently bought a Kobo Touch, which is not a new piece of technology. Here, I review it anyway, since it’s new to me. I’ll start with the negative and work my way to the positive.

For the non-initiates out there, a Kobo is an “e-reader.” That means it’s a handheld piece of electronics for consuming media—mostly books/magazines/things that would have otherwise been print media. A Kindle is also an e-reader, but made by a different company. I refuse to get a Kindle because of the sorts of things that Amazon does to customers who own Kindles. You could also put the iPad into this category, but it’s more of a tablet than an e-reader, I think. Anyway, a Kobo is a kind of e-reader that doesn’t have a back-lit display.

Things that the Kobo doesn’t do well

  • PDF documents—if the PDF wasn’t formatted for a Kobo or something, you’ll have to zoom and scroll all over, which will get really annoying really fast.
  • Apps—if you want to play games, don’t get a Kobo. You will be disappointed. It doesn’t do apps at all. There’s sort of an app where you can draw with your finger, but it is terrible.
  • Web browsing—there is a browser. No, don’t try it. You’ll be happy you didn’t.
  • Social integration—it keeps trying to post things to my Facebook. I really don’t like Facebook all that much. I would actually be okay if it offered to tweet things, but there’s no Twitter integration on the Kobo.
  • Annotations—entering text using the touch keyboard on a Kobo is slow, inaccurate and frustrating. Highlighting text is similarly difficult, but not as bad as annotating. Selecting text takes a while, and it sometimes can’t figure out where your finger is on the screen.
  • Discoverability of features—it took me a long time to figure out that I can bookmark a page by just tapping the top-right corner of a page. I’m still not sure if there’s a way to know how many pages in a book on my Kobo.
  • Buying books from the Kobo store sucks. It sucks pretty bad. It’s hard to browse for books on the Kobo e-reader, so I tried finding a book on the website and adding it to my “wishlist” so I could buy it. But it turns out that my wishlist doesn’t sync between my Kobo e-reader, the Kobo web store and the Kobo desktop app. Not only that, but it’s hard to get things onto your wishlist from the desktop app in the first place. This is something I hope they figure out soon, because it’s a fairly essential part of their business model—getting people to pay for their content.

Things that the Kobo does really well

  • It’s excellent for reading in direct sunlight. Due to the nature of the e-ink screen, the Kobo is perfect for reading outdoors. I have tested this extensively in the park near my house this summer. It’s wonderful, and it’s something that you can’t really do with an iPad.
  • Further, the Kobo doesn’t cause much eye strain. first off, the Kobo formats EPUB books so that the text is a nice size for reading. Also, the e-ink screen has no back-light, so it’s way easier on the eyes. Reading from a Kobo screen is really no more tiring than reading from a book.
  • There are lots of free books. this is not exclusive to the Kobo. Come to think of it, I always had access to these free books through Project Gutenberg, which you should check out if you haven’t yet. There are thousands of free books to be downloaded. These are largely classic works of literature whose copyright has expired, putting them in the Public Domain. But really, I never read these books before I had an e-reader, because it sucks to sit in front of a computer screen and read, even a laptop.
  • It’s “tossable.” I feel like I can throw it across the room, shove it in my bag, etc. There’s no glass screen, and it’s not very heavy. I feel like if I dropped it, it’s not heavy enough to break itself when it hits the floor.
  • Last thing is battery life, which I regard to be one of the biggest assets of the Kobo. I charged my Kobo for the first time on Tuesday July 24, 2012. Since then, I had the wifi turned off, except on three occasions during which I downloaded new books. It has now been just over four weeks since the last charge, and the battery indicator is around the one-quarter mark.
    To give you an idea of how much use I made of the Kobo during that time, I used it at least twice a day, every day, having taken up the habit of reading while using the stationary bicycle at the gym, and reading before bed each night. And because it was something new and shiny, I used it much more than that, just out of novelty, at the beginning of its life.

Overall assessment

All in all, I’m pretty happy with the thing. It was a fraction of the price of an iPad, and for reading books, at least, I think it does a better job. I’m enjoying it thoroughly and I’ve got about a million books I plan to read on it. Well, no more than 1 GB at a time, anyway.

Great Expectations

I’ve been slowly working my way through Dickens’ Great Expectations as my most recent Metro reading. (The last thing I was reading on the Metro was The Deptford Trilogy, and before that, Nikolski, both of which I recommend.)

Right now, I’m at the point where the escaped convict reveals himself to be the mysterious benefactor of the protagonist. I’ve never read it before, so don’t spoil it for me if you know how it ends!

Here is a list of three fun words whose meanings I have learned while reading this book:

  • Fain
  • Prolix
  • Akimbo

If you legitimately know the meanings of all these words without looking them up, you get three points.