I love books. I love to hold ‘em, I love to smell ‘em. I love taking them into the bathroom and having a long, relaxing poop. I love riffling through their pages and letting the gentle dusty breeze of received wisdom waft across my face. I grew up with three or four paperbacks splayed open on the floor beside my bed at any one time, and shelves and teetering stacks of them all around my room. As much as anything else in my life, the books I’ve read form the threads that link who I am today back to the boy I was. Reading has, for nearly 5 decades now, probably been the one unalloyed pleasure I have had, and the pleasure is undiminished today, even though there are so many more things to invade and occupy my mind. I’ve always said, half-jokingly, that I felt uncertain if I could trust someone until I drank with them, but I think my real Voight-Kampff test is whether someone is a Reader or not. I need to read.
When left Canada in my 20s, there was no public internet to speak of. Laptops weren’t — unless you count the suitcase-with-a-7-inch-CRT luggables. If you were a reader, you read printed words on paper. At any given time during my wander years, I was lugging around a few kilograms of books in my backpack, and I read whatever I could trade with other backpackers in hostels and bars. Hell, I picked up a copy of the Bible in Glencoe, Scotland, when I was there, to read through it again, even though I was (and remain) utterly uninterested in being a Christian. (Well, with one brief and odd exception, which is a tale for another day, perhaps.) Back in the day, when you were a wanderer, what you read was a matter of serendipity, and you learned to feel a deep love and gratitude for people who had left behind Actual Good Books in whatever tatty hostel common room you’d washed up in.
I ended up donating the thousands of books I’d accumulated as a youth, thanks to parents who were endlessly supportive of my readerly habits, to my small-town public library. I still bought books in the ensuing years, and except for the few keepers that I couldn’t bear to part with, always gave them away when it was time to move on. It broke my heart a little every time, but many years of travel honed in me an desire that remains today to try and keep my possessions to a minimum, and not grow overly attached to what I do have. What was inside the books was the most important thing, anyway. Even if that smudge and blot of blood on page 517 of Voltaire’s Bastards on a read-through years afterwards could throw me back into dreamy remembrance of a sticky, uncharacteristically quiet night on board La Passionata, rolling in mild swell at anchorage off Espiritu Santo, when I’d swatted a mosquito onto the page.
I started reading books almost exclusively on screens in about 1999, on a Thinkpad laptop. I can’t remember where I started finding my first, pirated, haphazadly-edited, extremely unofficial versions of books, online, usually as plain text files. Some long-since defunct warez site, no doubt. But, even though it was clunky and uncomfortable, propping up the laptop on a pillow beside me as I read myself to sleep, a light bulb went off in my head. There was, theoretically, as long as end-users kept scanning and OCRing books, an endless supply of reading material, and I could build a library that was completely portable.
This sounds obvious today, I know. Back then, it was a bit of a revelation to me.
Over the years, I’ve continued to read on a succession of slightly better devices. I used the Thinkpad until it finally died in 2007 or so, then moved to a netbook-sized Gigabyte that let you swivel the screen and convert it to a tablet form factor. It had a touch screen, and it was, at the time, pretty amazing. Now, well, somewhat less so. But the application I used to read, ubook, though it was a screaming nightmare of poor interface design, worked well enough once I had it set up.
For the last couple of years, I’ve used an iPad that my work gave me, and, well, I’m no Apple fanboy, but it really is pretty magical. I’ve never paid for an app for it, and don’t plan to start, so at least I’ve voted on their loathesome closed-garden business model with my pocketbook.
And in the meantime, of course, the ebook market, both clandestine and legitimate, has exploded. And I’ve gotten used to a base level of functionality in my e-reading that I couldn’t even have imagined might be possible, back in the last century when I started reading this way. And now, without that magic plastic library slab beside me in bed when I’m going to sleep, I would be very sad indeed.
There has really only been one iOS app that matched the magic of the device itself — Stanza. In tandem with an install of Calibre on my PC, it stripped away all the annoyances of being an early adopter, and made the pain of managing a digital library without being locked in to Apple or Amazon or anyone else’s bullshit DRM schemes just melt away.
Predictably, perhaps, though, Amazon bought Stanza a few years back, and promptly killed it, even though it was (and has remained, until recently) the best designed, most intuitive and downright user-kindly reading app out there. But it was free, and it competed with their shitty, locked-down Kindles, and so they just bought it, and stopped updating it (bar one tweak that came out of the blue last year and kept it alive a few months longer), and just assumed that it would fade away.
It hasn’t faded away entirely, though, because it was so damned good, and somehow, through successive new versions of iOS, it just kept working. Until iOS 6. Now it locks up when accessing settings menus, and crashes, or brings the whole device crashing down. Which isn’t really tenable, even for a die-hard like me.
I’ve refrained from upgrading my iPad to iOS 6 because, despite actively looking for worthy replacements to Stanza for months, there just wasn’t anything out there that wasn’t plastered with ads, or ugly as sin, or lacking in customizability, or couldn’t connect to OPDS catalogs, or any number of other things. But today, I finally said goodbye to Stanza, because there’s a new reader called Marvin (after the paranoid android, of course) that I’ve been testing out, and it’s already, in the couple of months it’s existed, better in most ways than Stanza, does as much as Stanza and more, and is just beautiful to look at. The developer is actively engaged with users, dropping new versions that improve on what is already surpassing excellence, and has promised that it will remain free (with non-functional addons like color schemes being made available for purchase if users want to kick in some money). I’m not telling you about this because of any kickbacks or affiliate marketing or stupid crap like that — I just want others to know about it who might have despaired, as I did, of ever finding a worthy Stanza replacement before it became too late.
I can’t recommend it more highly if you’re looking for a near-perfect experience reading epubs. No, you can’t riffle the pages and smell that inky goodness, but it’s as close as you’ll get. What was looking to be a depressing gap yawning open in my enjoyment of one of my life’s great pleasures has closed, and that is a great relief.