Saturday in the Nook

My new Nook e-reader, that is.

Julie got me a Nook Simple Touch for my birthday. Regular readers will probably think it seems like an odd gift for someone like me, who spends so much time bookscouting in thrift stores and such. And it's true that I love a great many of my books just as artifacts, along with the words they contain.

But I had been speculating about trying out a portable e-reader device of some kind, and after doing a little research, Julie decided I should have this one.

She said, "This for all those books you say you are 'on the bubble' about and then put back on the shelf when we are out shopping."

It's certainly a practical gift, considering how many books and comics we are accumulating that I didn't put back on the shelf.

Left to myself, I probably wouldn't have seriously looked into it for another year or so; that's an eon in tech years and the current versions of the e-readers out there today probably will be obsolete by then. I didn't want us to invest in the equivalent of what might turn out to be the Betamax or 8-track of e-readers.

It occurred to me that there might be other late-adopters like myself out there who've been toying with the idea of getting something eventually but, like me, haven't really decided one way or the other on the whole Kindle-Nook-e-reader thing. So I thought I'd report back here on the Nook, after a week of playing with it. This isn't really a review so much as a reaction; I don't pretend to any technical expertise, and I didn't do a whole lot of consumer research or anything like that. For all I know there might be a newer better version of the thing out there by the time I finish this column-- that's how fast the e-reader industry appears to be working these days.

Furthermore, I should emphasize that Julie is the techie in our household, not me. She loves gadgets of all kinds. Me, on the other hand... well, let's just say that I'm not one of those people who needs a one-stop device with a camera and an mp3 player and a web browser and all of that stuff. I use my cell phone to make phone calls, period; even texting is something I avoid. Most people know to just call me on the phone or wait till they see me in person, because I have large hands and trying to reply to a text using tiny virtual keys annoys the hell out of me. (I have a whole old-guy Andy Rooney rant about tiny touch-screen cell phone keyboards, but I will spare you.)

Julie knows all this and that's why, when shopping for me, she went for the Nook Simple Touch. (For herself, she'd probably have been all about an iPad.)

All that said.... I really do like this Nook. It suits me pretty well. It took me a little while to get used to the controls but after a week even fat-fingered me is getting the hang of it. As a starter e-reader, I think it's great, and I think Julie made the right call for the kind of device I would get the most use out of.

The big selling point for her (knowing me) was how easily it copes with standard e-pub files and PDF files, because I am finding that's how a lot of small-press publishers I like are doing business these days. I get review PDFs all the time, and e-books are also the most cost-effective option for me to purchase books from pulp-revival outfits like Airship 27 or Altus Press.

In fact, that's the first thing I did with it, was go noodling around on the Barnes and Noble site to see what they had in the way of pulp action stuff. I started with John D. MacDonald.

You can tell it's early days yet, because they only had a couple of them available for the Nook; I ended up with the third volume of Masters of Noir, a nice little collection of short stories from various famous crime authors-- it just came up in the search because MacDonald's name is first on the cover, I guess. And Death Quotient, a book that finally collects MacDonald's dozen or so science fiction stories.

The pulp stuff is cheap but it's not listed AS "pulp" or "pulp reprints" -- you have to know what you're looking for. But if you do, you can make out like a bandit. Barnes and Noble has all kinds of that stuff for 99 cents a pop (the minimum price for e-books there, except for the ones they give away for free.) Over the next day or so, I added all sorts of stuff, almost all of it for less than two dollars each. Mostly 99-cent offerings that caught my eye, or sometimes a book like Robert E. Howard's Almuric that I'd wanted for years but couldn't ever seem to find in an affordable edition (at least, one that wasn't beat to death.)

A search on Norvell Page, author of most of the Spider pulps, brought up these two oddities -- Secret Guns and Blood Arrow.

Haven't looked at either of them yet, but the thought of a western story done in the same deranged amphetamine-fueled writing style Page brought to his Spider novels fills me with glee.

The big expenditures were Lost Trails, an anthology of western stories, and Will Murray's new Doc Savage pastiche, The Desert Demons.

Those both came in at around five dollars each. (My mind has already started to adjust to the e-book scale-- for each of those I'd thought, a little spendy but worth it.)

Barnes and Noble would clearly prefer I not be aware of this (there's almost nothing in the manual about how to load publications from anywhere other than the B&N web site) but there's also lots of public-domain e-books available free out there in both epub and PDF format, that run just fine on my Nook. Spending a little time at the Project Gutenberg and Epub Books web sites respectively I wound up with a boatload of Edgar Rice Burroughs, a couple from H. Rider Haggard, a couple more from Andre Norton, everything Baroness Orczy wrote about the Scarlet Pimpernel, and a great deal of what Sax Rohmer wrote about the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. I even threw in a couple of classics from Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling I've been meaning to get around to for years. In no time at all, I'd loaded about thirty books on there... I had to make myself stop before the Nook's Shelf of Shame was bigger than the one on my already-groaning nightstand.

But for the most part it was all prose. I did do some experimenting with comics over the last day and a half, and I have to say, the Nook's not really built for them. At least not this model.

There are a couple of problems. The first one is proprietary. There's a big format war going on between the Nook and the Kindle right now, with Amazon and B&N each trying to outdo the other with not just the hardware, but also with various additional deals, discounts, and exclusivity contracts. (I'm not going to rehash the DC vs. Barnes and Noble kerfuffle here, but suffice it to say that there was one.)

Obviously, this could change, and is in fact probably changing as I write this. But at the moment almost the entire comics industry is geared for the Amazon Kindle. And Kindle comics downloads are no good for this device; the last thing Amazon wants is for people to be putting their Kindle books on a Nook, they're gambling that they can sell enough Kindle-only e-books to make their current loss-leader device strategy pay off.

So Amazon's pretty much a dead loss for me as far as e-comics are concerned. I'm sure that somewhere someone has devised a hack for converting Kindle to Nook, but I'm not interested enough to go looking for it.

Likewise, the preferred format for digital comics is .cbr or .cbz files, and my Nook can't deal with those either. (I did try an open-source program that allegedly can convert .cbr files to .epub ones, but it's a kludgy mess and a huge memory hog. What's more, after all the time I spent screwing around trying to get my computer to load the software and run it, the resultant .epub file still wouldn't open on the Nook, so I gave up in disgust.)

I also experimented with loading a couple of review PDF comics I had here to my Nook, and those didn't work either. The opening matter -- anything that's just text, like the copyright page or title page or something like that, carries over to the Nook screen but not very well, there are freaky line breaks and sometimes even odd breaks in the middle of a word.

Like This, For Example

... so I gave up there too. My prose PDF files from Airship 27 read well enough, but most anything else with strong graphic elements -- illustrations, logos, and so on-- appears to be unworkable as well.

That left the Nook Comics entries from Barnes and Noble themselves as the only ones worth trying. They did have a lot of Marvel books available, but most of them are things I already own in trade paperback, and anyway all of it's priced WAY high compared to the prose e-books available. Experimenting with a couple of 99-cent comics entries, I found that this isn't really that great a device for comics reading anyway.

Just as a trial balloon of sorts, I invested a dollar in these two--

A Princess of Mars and Between the Panels. Despite being listed as "graphic novels," though, neither actually is one. The Mars book is just the prose novel with a few illustrations, which look like they're probably pretty good but are wasted on my tiny black-and-white Simple Touch screen. Between the Panels is a book of essays illustrated with the occasional sketch. It reads well enough, even with illustrations, and is the only comics-related piece I found that looks like it was actually formatted for my Nook.

Neither purchase answered my questions about trying to read comics on this device, though, so I tried again. This time I invested 99 cents apiece on Sherlock Holmes and The Marvel Family, both available in the Barnes and Noble Nook Comics store.

The Marvel Family book is a classic, and includes the first appearance ever of Black Adam. Sadly though, again, it just doesn't look good on my little Nook screen.

It's just too small. It's the 1970s Marvel paperback thing all over again.

The Holmes comic is an odd little novelty that I'd heard about but never actually read. The story's really not very good, which is probably why it was allowed to fall into the public domain in the first place. But the approach to the digital reading process was a little different. It presents as a panel at a time, not a page. Sometimes this works really well on my Nook...

And other times, not so much.

Honestly, even without trying other devices like a Kindle or an iPad loaded with Comical or something like that, most of my reservations about publishers like Marvel and DC doing their print stuff as digital comics still stand. The work's just not formatted properly for the devices they want us to read them on.

Final verdict? As far as comics for Nook and Kindle are concerned, I think we're just not there yet. Until the actual creators and publishers of print comics catch up to the things the webcomic-original folks have learned about how to do this work for a screen instead of a page, the New Digital Age of Comics won't have arrived.

But in the meantime, I won't be bored. Even if my new toy can't translate print comic books to satisfying digital ones, I've got a ton of OTHER cool stuff to read. Because the Digital Age of Pulps seems to have arrived about five years ago, and I've got all kinds of catching up to do. I think there's enough pulpy action reading available in e-book form for me to be entertained for years.

Even if my little Simple Touch Nook does turn out to be the Betamax of e-readers.

See you next week.

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