Note: This article originally ran as a cover story in Full Circle Magazine Issue #47, March, 2011.
I have become quite a fan of E-books. They have a number of great advantages: they are generally cheaper (in some cases free), they don’t take up space , and are highly portable. Right now I am carrying a couple of dozen books around with me at all times. You can’t do that with dead trees!
You might have thought that you would need expensive equipment and software to enjoy E-books, but that is not the case. With readily-available software you can manage and enjoy E-books on your Ubuntu computer and add them a to portable device like an Android phone. I am going to show you how I do it in the U.S.
Calibre: The Desktop Solution
The first piece of software you should have in your arsenal is Calibre ( http://calibre-ebook.com/ ). This is billed as “The one stop solution to all your E-book needs” and it is pretty close to being that. It is cross-platform, being available for Linux, Windows, and OS X. You can download from the site, or install from Ubuntu repositories. But note that this program is under active development, and the version in the repositories is not maintained so it is likely to be behind the most current version. As I write this, for instance, the repository version is 0.7.18, while the latest version o9n the Calibre web site is 0.7.42. As a regular user of this program, I can say that I almost never open it without getting a notification that a new version is available. So I would advise downloading it from the Web site. It is written in Python, so you will have a dependency, but most people will already have the required packages on their system. (It needs python>= 2.6).
What do you get when you install Calibre? You get a collection manager, a format converter, the ability to download and add metadata, syncing to e-book reader devices, and a reader capable handling just about every format out there that is not DRM-restricted. It can also act as a Web server letting you access your collection from any Web browser over the internet. This is a great deal, since it is free and open source, but if you like it, there is a “Donate” button on the Web page, and I clicked it to donate $10 and I would encourage anyone using the software to support the development of this software.
Create your library
When you run Calibre for the first time, the “Welcome Wizard” will give you an initial setup, with a library in your /home directory. You can add books by copying the file into that directory and then clicking the “Add books” button. Calibre will take each book and copy it into a directory and create a database entry for it. You can add books to the library in a wide variety of formats: CBZ, CBR, CBC, CHM, EPUB, FB2, HTML, LIT, LRF, MOBI, ODT, PDF, PRC, PDB, PML, RB, RTF, SNB, TCR, TXT. And you can convert these files from any of these formats to a somewhat reduced list of output formats: EPUB, FB2, OEB, LIT, LRF, MOBI, PDB, PML, RB, PDF, SNB, TCR, TXT. This can matter when you get to syncing or transferring your e-books to a reader device. Also note that the conversion process will result in two files, since the original is also kept.
Once you have added the books, you may want to add metadata. A lot of the free e-books available are simple text files without covers or added information. You can right-click on any book in your library, select “Edit Metadata”, and get going. I usually do this for each book individually for greater control, but you can edit them in bulk for books in a series and then add individual data later. When you edit the metadata you get this screen:
You can type in information for the fields on the right side of the screen, but often that information is already available online. If you click the button on the bottom, “Fetch metadata from server”, it will find any data available form Google books, and in addition you can get a free account at isbndb.com to give you even more information. For recently published books you can get the precise edition info from the ISBN, or for older public domain works you can choose from a variety of editions to get your metadata and covers.
You may have heard the saying “Q. What is the best digital camera? A. The one you have with you.” I think the same thing can be said for E-readers. Calibre is great for building and managing your library, but I don’t really read anything with Calibre because I have to be at a computer to use it. I suppose if you have a laptop you take with you everywhere that would work, but I prefer something lighter and more portable. There are dedicated E-reader devices like the Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook, and if you want to go that route you need to be aware of a couple of things: they are proprietary and they are restricted by DRM. Any e-book you buy from Amazon will only work on a Kindle or on Amazon’s Kindle software. The same is true of Barnes and Noble. And their readers and software handle different formats. Amazon Kindle does not read EPUB, which is one of the most common formats. But Nook favors EPUB. It is things like this which makes Calibre’s ability to convert between formats so valuable.
While these readers are valuable, I have found it most convenient to do my reading on my Android phone, because it is always with me. Aldiko is available in the Android store in 2 versions, free and paid. The developers ( http://www.aldiko.com ) say that the free version is “ad supported”, though when I had the free version . Since the paid version was only $2.99, and I like to support developers, I bought it once I knew I would keep using the software. However, I know that the ability to purchase apps from the Android store varies in different countries. Aldiko is available on any Android phone running Android 2.1 or greater, and is quite intuitive.
To begin, you need to transfer books to your Android phone. Connect your phone with a USB cable, mount your SD card as a USB device, and copy the books you want to read to the ebooks/import/ directory. You can then import the books from within Aldiko using the Menu button from the main screen. Aldiko can read books in the EPUB& PDF formats as long as they are not DRM-restricted. But the latest version (2.0) does add support for Adobe DRM if you have files with that restriction. Once imported, the books appear in your Library, and you can begin reading. Tap the home button on the upper left of the screen, select “List view”, or you can use the drop-down on the upper right to select “Books by Title”. Find the book you want, and start reading. You can move from page to page with a sidewise swipe. If you close the application and come back later, you can open that book at the exact spot you were in when you closed it.
Once you have Aldiko on your phone, you will find it is so convenient. Any time you are stuck in a line or in a waiting room, you can just pull out your phone and get a little reading done. I would not sit down to a long winter’s evening by the fire and read on my phone, but I find I knock off a book a week on my phone just by using those otherwise wasted moments.