Death to e-classics. Long live e-classics!

By the silly word “e-classics” I mean ebook versions of dearly beloved public domain works by authors such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells, Shakespeare, and so on.  The first ebooks I read were in fact e-classics –  the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, found for free on FeedBooks.

Two years ago, I thought the upswell in ebook interest would mean a revival for these classics.  They were, after all, the easiest ebooks to get.  You can find many different copies of these books for free online as riffs on Project Gutenberg files.  In Amazon’s Kindle Store, you’ll see a whole slew of these public domain ebooks for sale from swindlers for anywhere from $.99 to $5.  I say swindlers because these are public domain texts and the “sellers” usually haven’t added any value whatsoever from what I’ve seen in sample chapters.  Added value to me would include at the very least a linked table of contents (which Amazon should be adding by default but they don’t), or a map, a timeline, something to help readers make sense of the content of the book itself.

But now that we’re past the year of the ebook (or on it’s third year, depending who you ask), I see I was wrong.  If anything, these free ebook versions of the classics are just mucking things up royally.  Please don’t take my word for it.  Do your own investigations and see what you come up with.  Here are three anecdotal pieces of evidence that I can offer:

1. Lady Chatterly’s Lover

Last year I started reading D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel as a free ebook from FeedBooks, which was using an edition from Project Gutenberg.  From the very beginning of the book, the formatting of the text itself was a little distracting — words were run together, the chapter headings were spaced out awkwardly, and there were obvious typos from the ebook conversion process.  I was using the Stanza app on my iPhone.  I ignored these little aesthetic drawbacks and enjoyed the story anyway.  I wouldn’t have known there was anything missing form the copy I was reading if Mark and I hadn’t wandered into a used bookstore one day where they had a copy of the book in their front room.  I happened to be at a place in the ebook with some particularly muddled text near the end of a chapter so I flipped through the paper copy in the store till I found that section and what do I discover?  Why, the paper copy has an additional page of dialogue in this chapter that my ebook doesn’t have at all!  It turns out I was reading one of the “censored” versions of the text.  So I bought a *paper* copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and gave up on the ebook version right then and there.  Besides actually having the complete book (!) the Penguin edition also provided me with a map of the English Midlands, a glossary of dialect forms spoken by the characters, and a wonderful appendix of explanatory notes to the text.  I would have gladly paid for an ebook version that had all these great features, but from what I can tell, Lady Chatterly’s Lover is not among the select few to be a Penguin ebook.

2. Jane Eyre

Lots of reasons to read Jane Eyre of late.  A) Mark is reading it for a class he’s taking and I enjoy reading and discussing books with him, plus B) there is a new movie version coming out in, oh, a week.  Since Mark is reading it for a class, he had a specific edition to look for – namely, the Oxford World’s Classics.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have this as an ebook for class discussions?  See all your notes and questions in one place, quickly find the paragraph or section in question by just doing a search, annotating passages as new themes are brought up in class. Have in-text links to the explanatory notes and back. But no, sorry. Not possible with the Oxford editions.  From what I can tell, Oxford is only making their reference and medical titles into ebooks so far. I would dearly love to be wrong about this.  Please tell me I’m wrong.

3. The Maltese Falcon

This is a classic but not yet public domain.  Our local public library selected it as the Siouxland book of the year and they have some great programming planned for it, including a free viewing and discussion of the film based on the book.  I was prepared to pay for an ebook version of The Maltese Falcon, but Holy Cow what a mess.

First of all, no ebook version comes up on a search in Amazon except, bizarrely enough, the script by John Huston.  Lucky me, knowing the author is Dashiell Hammett.  How would someone like a high school student even know what they were getting with goofiness like this?

Second, I do a generic Google search for it and get all the suspicious looking ebook torrent sites along with – oh! – Random House.  Really?  Do I have to know the publisher of the book I want in order to find it?  Fine, whatever.  So I go to Random House’s page for The Maltese Falcon and I click on the little ebook link.  From there, I click on the button for “Buy Now” … which gives me a string of links to choose from, including a dead Amazon link and “More…” which gives me 13 links to individual stores.  Just give me an ePub or PDF already and let me get on with reading!

Conclusion

So I’m not reading or enjoying Jane Eyre or The Maltese Falcon at the moment.  Instead, I’m continuing this Educause book I started reading for work.  An ebook that was freely available online, as a DRM-free PDF, which I am annotating with abandon and I’m even going to share it with my boss and colleagues when I’m done, which means even more people will be reading it.  I can keep it in Dropbox, read it with apps like GoodReader or PDF Expert or even something else, if I want!

And here’s something else to think about:  I actually prefer to read on the iPad.  Over my laptop, over paper.  I would rather curl up on the couch with the iPad in it’s clever little stand and both of my hands wrapped around a hot mug of tea.  I could read my RSS feeds on my spiffy MacBook Pro, but the design and interface of apps like MoblileRSS make RSS reading on the iPad a beautiful, relaxing experience.  The stats in my Google Reader Trends can attest to that.  And I would like to carry this experience over to my book reading, too, but for the moment it is still too hard to find the books I want to read in a format I can use.

In the meantime, I both grieve for and look forward to the day when publishers have rendered themselves obsolete to readers.  I will sorely miss the excellent supplemental content provided by publishers like Penguin and Oxford, but I will not miss for one second the headaches that publishers are causing their readers.

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