Kindle for Academics

Currently, no ebook reader appears to completely solve my needs. Some come close in some areas, while still making things unnecessarily complicated in the final steps of the solution.

Ulysses notes

Some ebook readers, such as the Kobo, quickly fail to solve my needs. The standalone Kobo ereader provides no means for text entry, having only a D-pad toggle. My first need for an ereader is to highlight and take notes on the text.

While there appears to be some support for these annotation features on the iPad Kobo app, they don’t appear to sync across the cloud. Their desktop app, for example, provides no annotation features at all.

The Amazon Kindle has more strict Digital Rights Management (DRM), which restricts some forms of access to the text, such as in 2009 when Amazon deleted George Orwell novels, including 1984, from all Kindle devices. This is a level of control I’m uncomfortable with a large corporation to have. The opportunities for abuse are evident, as Amazon has shown in January of 2010, by pulling all books published by subsidiaries of Macmillan, including SF publisher Tor, from the Amazon store. This was done as part of a power play on digital rights sales, such as Kindle books, but it involved pulling all print editions as well.

Amazon’s Kindle has a multi-platform triple-threat. In addition to their portable ereader devices, they provide a desktop reading solution, as well as other mobile devices such as the Apple iPad. While Kindle is available for BlackBerry, like many other things Amazon has to offer, this isn’t available in Canada.

While I haven’t used the Kindle ereader hardware, I have used both their desktop reader, and the iPad version. Both of these offer highlighting and text annotations, which sync wirelessly with each other. They also maintain your reading position between the two applications. This is unfortunately only the first part of the solution.

The important part is where Amazon fails. Once you have selected portions of the text, and made annotations on the go, students need to access this text. Amazon sometimes allows these “clippings” — as they refer to the selections — to be exported via their web interface. Note the qualifying word of sometimes. Each book in their system apparently has some undefined, undocumented limit as to how much of the text can be exported in this manner. Some books have a hard limit of no exported text. While I can understand the publisher’s desire to stop people from copying the book, this is not helpful for students in the least.

Sadly, copyright tends to actually be more restrictive for academics in Canada. Concordia University has a helpful comparison between fair dealing (in Canada) versus fair use (in the United States). The restrictions in clipping length may be analogous to the lack of definition of the term “substantial” in the Copyright Act (s.3). As this term is undefined in the Act, publishers may decide on a more restrictive definition than commonly accepted.

The web interface that Amazon uses is also difficult to use. In an ideal world, I would be able to select my highlighted sections from the desktop app, and have them copied in proper citation format, including an entry for my works cited list.

Another problem when dealing with the Kindle is directly related to citations. Amazon has standardized on a “location” number to reference text in a book, rather than the term “page”. The thought on their part is that at different zoom levels, pagination will change, making page references unstable.

Amazon has lately started to remedy this problem, by including page numbers which presumably link back to a print edition of a book. While I see this change on the iPad, my desktop application only provides Location information. In either case, I still have to manually type the quoted text into my essay. How is this more convenient than just using a print book again?

What’s the solution? It’s been tempting to run screenshots through OCR software, except that I’d still have to proofread the text for corrections. I guess what really bothers me is that this is something that would likely be easier than what Amazon is doing now, and not just for students.

Ancient Writing and the Odyssey

How are texts passed down through history? In my English 301H class, we’re studying a modern english translation of The Odyssey, by Homer. Interestingly, scholars believe that the Odyssey and the Iliad were both composed some five hundred years before the alphabet was developed and became used in ancient Greece. Five hundred years of oral recitation and recomposition passed before the poem was codified in writing.

How are texts transmitted and recomposed through time? While I have mentioned the recent edition of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and how some of the language has changed, the question itself dates back much further, to the time of the Homeric epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Academic scholars today believe that the sack of Troy was a historical event, which took place around 1300BCE, roughly five hundred years before the Phoeneicians introduced the alphabet to ancient Greece.

There are several theories about how the version written down came to be. The Odyssey’s complex structure was originally thought by scholars to have been formed during the recording of the poem into writing. Newer theories suggest instead that the complex structure would have aided the bards in the recitation of the poem, as a form of mnemonic. This theory suggests that the Odyssey was not recited word for word, but re-composed from a common template, every recitation a new work of art. As the recorded version contains over twelve thousand lines of poetry, I can easily see how the composition of the poem during recitation, based on a structured skeleton could be preferable to the rote memorization of a lengthy poem.

I don’t know how many times it was edited after being first committed to written words, but there are signs that the Greek tyrant Peisistratus commissioned a revision of Homer’s works, from 546-524 BCE. This is presumably the source of the “canonical” Greek text of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The further heritage of the text is interesting, when one looks at the number of texts which use Odysseus and his journeys as the source for further writings. The Romans called him Ulysses, and portrayed him as a villain. Odysseus appears in Dante’s Inferno, and James Joyce’s Ulysses has many things in common with the voyages of Odysseus.