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Thoughts on the Nook

July 29, 2011

My household recently acquired a Nook. For several years I have insisted that I had no interest in having an e-reader because I have always relished the tactile feel of the pages of a book. Today I’m eating crow in public, because I have been completely won over by the slim little black device, which is easy to pack, weighs less than a paperback, and has its own no-slip surface that is every bit as nice to hold as a book (albeit in a completely different way).

The Nook reads EPUB files, which are available online. Although the Nook is the e-reader specifically promoted by Barnes & Noble, you don’t need to purchase titles from them in order to have reading material for your Nook. A variety of sites have EPUB files available for free downloading, as you can see at http://techpp.com/2010/03/31/top-ebook-search-engines-download-ebooks-free/. Free downloads are generally out-of-copyright, which means that they were first published a long time ago. Either no one wants them anymore (as with obscure novels of the 1800s) or they are famous works like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “Pride and Prejudice”. But in either case, whether these books are deservedly forgotten or classics, the entire canon of Western literature is available for free to anyone with an e-reader. And that canon is huge.

I have spent hours methodically combing through the files available at Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page) and ManyBooks (http://www.manybooks.net/). I have always been a bookworm and considered myself well-read in the Western tradition, but I was astonished at how many books there were whose authors I had never heard of. It’s sobering to look over the countless hordes of once-proud authors who have utterly vanished from the radar of contemporary libraries and bookshelves. My own first book is scheduled to appear next spring, published by Indiana University Press, but it’s a humbling experience to look through EPUB files and reflect that probably 99% (if not more) of all books that have ever existed were ephemeral works, not perennial classics like “Pride and Prejudice” or “Huck Finn.” I have no illusions about my own work; if it persists in print for twenty years I’ll be thrilled.

Some buy a Nook to download current mysteries or bestsellers but I have other aims in mind. While browsing the free files online I found fascinating opportunities. How could I turn down the opportunity to read “How to Enjoy Paris in 1842” by F. Herve? I downloaded at least five other travel books from the first half of the 1800s in order to get a glimpse of a vanished Europe. I downloaded Harry Houdini’s “The Miracle Mongers and Their Methods,” explaining how magicians’ tricks are performed. After a year spent reading biographies of the Romantic Poets, how could I not read “Shelley at Oxford”, written by the poet’s close friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, who was expelled alongside Shelley when the latter published a student essay in defense of atheism? I downloaded Tolstoy’s works on non-violence which inspired Gandhi’s later principles. And I downloaded Hilaire Belloc’s cautionary verses for children, grisly poems with amusing cartoons that predated Edward Gorey by at least sixty years.

The Nook has both pros and cons. The pros have already been mentioned: the sleek design, the ergonomic grip, the packability. The e-ink has no glare (but cannot be read in the dark). The font appearance, size and margins can all be easily adjusted to suit your eyesight; the Nook can make any book a large-print edition for the visually impaired. The battery life is excellent. You can download books from the public library to it, and you can load your own photographs (when turned off it automatically defaults to a decorative photograph that fills the screen). Because it has wireless you can download books from Barnes & Noble from any WiFi location. You can receive magazines and newspapers on it.

On the downside, the Nook is somewhat nervous and squirrelly and occasionally when you turn a page it will skip forward several pages at once, even when lightly touched. The Nook  automatically opens to the page of the last book that was being read, but there’s no simple way to move easily between several books that were all left open; the reader must either scroll down through the long list of titles (imagine scrolling down through your lengthy iTunes library holdings looking for a song whose title you may have forgotten) or by performing an author/title search using the keypad. But wouldn’t a pulldown menu showing all the books that were left open have been appropriate feature? More troubling, illustrations are problematic. The Hilaire Belloc “Cautionary Poems” book had been stripped of its famous original cartoons, which is like stripping the Tenniel illustrations from “Alice in Wonderland”. The Belloc cartoons were not even included as hyperlink footnotes that were shunted to the end of the work. They simply were not there, although brackets in the text showed where they were supposed to go. Obviously, e-readers take many different forms and not all illustrations can be accommodated easily with this small format; but the designers of these devices seriously need to consider how illustrations can be incorporated in some way. Complicated text layouts also appear to be a problem; for instance, in the EPUB version of “Little Women” there is a sequence in which the sisters publish their own home newspaper, which is presented in several side-by-side columns which continue for several pages. The EPUB version was hopelessly scrambled and it was impossible to gain anything beyond disconnected parts of the whole.

I’ve been told that Calibre (http://calibre-ebook.com/) is just the ticket, and I intend to give it a try. It allows you to sort your library into collections (like separating your iTunes songs into different playlists). That’s exactly what I am looking for and I’m surprised the Nook didn’t come with this feature automatically incorporated into it.

But even with these problems noted, I’m delighted with my Nook. It’s small, it’s sexy, it likes to travel, and it enjoys meeting my friends! It’s a good companion and silently provides me with lots to think about. Although it’s not perfect, I’m certainly not perfect either, which makes us a good match.

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2 Comments
  1. Hi! We have the Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (and, I think, More Beasts for Worse Children) in paperback if you haven’t yet seen the illustrations–you’re welcome to borrow them. I can’t bring myself to read them to my kids, though.

    • Ha! I will take you up on that, Jenny. I haven’t physically laid eyes on those illustrations for about forty years but I remember them as amusing and grotesque cartoons. I’d like to look at those books again; my parents had a full set.

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