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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 September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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