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A Beginner’s Guide to E-Books

A Beginner’s Guide to E-Books

Beginner\'s Guide to E-Books

    In the last year, e-books have started taking off in a big way. E-books have been around for a long time, of course, but a few events in the last year suggest that they’re really starting to get traction as a viable alternative to paper-based reading. One is the success of e-books like Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done (read my review). Another is the emergence of e-book-only publishing concerns and widespread self-publishing made possible by the availability of cheap tools and widespread Internet access. The third is the release of viable e-book readers, especially the Kindle.

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    Another sign of the success of e-books, though, is not such a happy one: the huge glut of poorly written, scammy, second- and third-rate e-books that has suddenly started flooding the market. As with music and video, the Internet has made publishing and distributing books easy and next to free, and it can be hard to find anything worth reading.

    Still, there’s some gems out there if you know where to look. For those of you who are just discovering e-books, or are ready to take another look, I offer this basic guide to finding and reading e-books, with a few tips and tricks thrown in.

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    E-Book Formats

    There are dozens of different formats out there, all intended for different devices and platforms. Here’s a quick overview of the most popular ones:

    • PDF: Adobe’s Portable Document Format is the leading format for e-books, since it can perfectly simulate the appearance of the printed page.
    • LIT: Microsoft’s LIT format is used by Microsoft Reader, available for Windows-based PCs and mobile devices. LIT files look nice, but are often copy-protected and have limited functionality.
    • MOBI: A portable document format created by Mobipocket (which runs on Windows PCs and just about every kind of smartphone or PDA), MOBI picked up steam recently when it was adopted, albeit in a slightly modified form, by the Kindle.
    • Plain Text (txt) and HTML: Standard file types that can be used by just about every device known. TXT files lack any formatting.

    How to Find E-Books

    There are thousands, maybe millions, of sites offering e-books on the Internet, but here are a few good ones:

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    • Amazon: Of course Amazon has e-books, with just about any recent mainstream book for sale. Your favorite online retailer probably carries e-books, too.
    • Project Gutenberg: Millions of free, public domain books, generally available in text and HTML formats. Includes just about any classic book you can think of from before 1923, and a few more recent books.
    • Wowio: Beautifully formatted books, including some fairly recent mainstream books, all free.
    • The Internet Archive: The Internet Archive is scanning books in libraries around the world and making them available for free in a range of formats, including searchable PDFs of the original page images. They have about half-a-million texts so far, and counting.
    • Baen Free Library: A pioneer in the e-book field, Baen makes selected titles from it’s line of science fiction and fantasy books available for free download. Lots of good stuff for SF fans!
    • Free-eBooks.net: A huge directory of free e-books, most of which are self-published. You’ll have to do some digging to find quality stuff here, but there are plenty of good books to be found with some patience.
    • Web Warrior Tools: Founded by two of the stars of the personal productivity blogosphere, Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and Glen Stansberry of LifeDev, Web Warrior Tools offers a collection of books devoted to topics like better email, podcasting, and other Lifehack-y subjects.
    • Memoware: Memoware includes tens of thousands of public domain books, formatted for a wide range of portable devices. They also have a premium bookstore where more current, mainstream books can be bought.
    • Fictionwise: A huge e-book bookstore, specializing in SF, with titles formatted for a range of devices. Check out their always-changing selection of free e-books drawn from their collection.

    How to Read E-Books

    Nobody has figured out a way to read that adequately replaces the way we read traditional paper books, but that isn’t always important — and some solutions come pretty close! There are a number of ways to read e-books:

    • On your computer screen: This is probably the least preferred way to read e-books. But it’s fine for short pieces — you read on the Internet at your computer, right? It’s also fine for quickly looking at reference material like an encyclopedia or computer manual.
    • PDA/smartphone/iPhone: I’ve read dozens of books on my old Palm IIIe, when I lived in New York and took the subway a lot. iPhones are supposed to be particularly nice to read on. Most PDAs and smartphones come with some kind of pre-installed e-book reader, or you can easily download Mobipocket, Microsoft Reader, or a range of other programs depending on your device’s operating system.
    • Dedicated devices: New devices with “electronic ink” technology come very close to reproducing the appearance of printed text on paper pages (although the background is closer to “pulp fiction gray” than “first edition white”). There are several devices on the market, but the leaders are:
      • The Kindle: With built-in wireless Internet to download books on the fly and the support of Amazon’s extensive inventory of e-books, the Kindle was a surprise hit — especially considering how ugly it is!
      • The Sony eReader: Better looking than the Kindle, but lacking the wireless Internet. Both devices use basically the same screen and cost about the same. Because the e-ink technology used in the screen only uses electricity to change the screen (e.g. to turn pages), battery life on both devices is quite high — unless you use the built-in mp3 player or the Kindle’s wireless Internet services.
    • Paper: I often print out longer works that I don’t want to read on a screen, especially if it’s likely I’ll be holding onto and re-reading it. Save paper by using your printer’s “multiple pages per sheet” function and printing on both sides; I also keep a ream of paper with pre-drilled holes handy so I can stick printed out books straight into a binder.

    E-books can be quite practical — there’s a universe of great literature, history, science, how-to, and reference material available at a moment’s notice, often for free. What could be wrong with that?

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    If you know of other sites where good e-books can be found, if you have a favorite way to read e-books that I haven’t listed here, or if there’s a program you especially like, let us know in the comments!

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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