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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

High Calibre

As I have said before, almost as fun as watching movies is reading about them. And thanks to the World Wide Web, there is virtually no limit to how much or what we can read about movies or anything else we are interested in.

And what is the best way to read all the great reviews and commentaries and articles out there about film? Besides simply subscribing to this web site and leaving it at that, I mean. I’ve got my own preferred tools for getting up-to-date reading material, which leads me to an addendum to my testimonial to gadgets I have owned and loved.

If you are a big reader, the obvious gadget to have would seem to be a no-brainer: get a Kindle. When I first heard about Amazon’s e-reader, I knew it was just the sort of gadget I had been waiting for, for years. What could be better than a gadget that is more or less as convenient as a book but contains large numbers of books as well as up-to-the-minute editions of newspapers, magazines and blogs—all delivered, as if by magic, invisibly through the air. Who wouldn’t shell out for that? With a gadget like that, you need only bring one small item on your travels to have all the reading material you want. And think of the paper you save. Not only are you not buying hard copies of daily newspapers or weekly magazines but, for people like me who tend to download articles from lots of different sources over the internet, it means not having to use paper to print them all out for reading later. The only downside is if you don’t care for reading a screen instead of good old-fashioned paper. This is not a trivial concern. Many of us have long learned to love the feel of nicely bound books and of turning pages.

But I have a large library of those good old-fashioned books that is not going anywhere, so I will never be far from an actual tome if I have an absolute need to handle one or even read one. For new books and periodicals, I have always been quite willing to read them on a gadget instead of on paper. Indeed, my main way of reading newspapers and magazines for some time now has been to download articles that interest me and print them out. (This probably has to do, at least partially, with the fact that I live four miles from the nearest news shops and their selection of periodicals is pretty limited.) One thing that doesn’t work for me is to spend long periods of time reading a computer screen. Not to say I don’t spend long hours looking at a computer screen. But when it comes to simple reading, it doesn’t suit me. Even seated in a comfortable chair with a laptop on my lap, it is not natural enough. And it often isn’t practical for bringing to waiting rooms or cafés or other places where I would like to take the opportunity to get a bit of reading done. So the Kindle was clearly exactly what I needed.

There was only one problem. The Kindle isn’t actually sold where I live. There have been rumors of Amazon releasing it here in Europe, but so far there has been no announcement. Now, the mere fact that it is not supported over here would not prevent me from acquiring one anyway. I could have had one delivered to a friend or relative in advance of my last visit to the U.S. And there is no question that it would work fine over here, with one critical caveat. There would be no wireless support, so I would be left to upload directly from my computer to the device, thereby foregoing the main convenience the device offers users in the U.S. That’s too bad, but it wasn’t the deal-breaker. From what I had read, you can download PDF files to it (my preferred format for printing articles) but that involves uploading each file to the Amazon web site and paying a small charge. That situation sent me looking for other solutions.

It turns out there are other e-readers out there, although they tend to live in the shadow of the much-hyped Kindle. Sony has had a number of models, including a couple that were released just recently. I eventually settled on the Sony PRS-505, which could easily be purchased here in Ireland at any of Sony’s own retail stores. But I opted to buy it in Massachusetts during a visit in April, mainly to avoid the increasingly painful dollar-to-euro exchange rate (thanks, Obama administration) and Ireland’s 21.5 percent value added tax (or VAT; thanks Cowen government). I had to search a bit to find a Sony e-reader in a U.S. retail store. Office Depot didn’t have it, and the manager looked perplexed when I mentioned Sony retail stores. But I finally picked one up at a Target for just under $300. I haven’t regretted spending the money since. Sony has its own online store with a pretty good selection of books, although it can’t begin to compare with Amazon. I have to use a USB cable to download books and PDF files, but I personally don’t find that a hardship, especially since I don’t have to go through a web site or pay any fee to do so.

As happy as I was with the PRS-505 out of the box, it immediately went from handy to fabulous and indispensable when I came across some software that made my e-reader my best friend in the world. The program is called Calibre, and it can be downloaded freely from the web (, although donations are encouraged. After trying it, I quickly sent the programmer money with gratitude. Calibre replaces the Sony software for managing one’s e-book library and downloading books and files to one’s reader. It seems to support any e-reader, including the Kindle. What makes the program marvelous is that it contains a number of scripts (or recipes, in the Calibre vernacular) for downloading entire issues of newspapers, magazines and blogs from all over the web and in many different languages. It does this by parsing the sites’ RSS fees or, in some cases, by parsing the publication’s web site itself. It downloads the HTML pages, maintaining the web page’s structure, and converts them into whatever e-book format you specify, e.g. EPUB, LRF, MOBI plus several others.

Scores of pre-written recipes are provided for publications in languages ranging from Bosnian to Vietnamese. Many, if not most, major publications are covered, including everything (in English) from Accountancy Age to ZDnet, as well as major newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, as well as more local ones. Also available are such news sites as BBC, CNN, the Associated Press, United Press International and even The Onion. The amazing thing is that most of these sites are completely free. Some require free user registration. A few require paid registration. Of course, you can view all these web sites directly from your computer, but it is such a powerful ability to be able to have a day’s worth of articles or blogs all downloaded in a usable structure on a simple reading device.

If there is a publication you would like to read on a daily basis or even just once in a while, you are quite likely to find it among the provided recipes. And if your favorite isn’t there, well, if you have the bent and don’t mind doing a little coding yourself, you can write your own recipe in the Python programming language. Or if you want to use a provided recipe but you aren’t completely happy with it, you can modify it. Certainly, writing Python code isn’t for everybody, but if you’re at all a geek, this makes Calibre an extremely powerful program for getting exactly what you want from the vast publication resources out there on the net. You will never again have an excuse (other than the finite quality of time) for missing a movie review written anywhere by anyone ever again.

Someday we will probably look back on this time as a golden age in which so much content was so readily available and free. A tool such as Calibre drives home how much is out there. At times I feel a bit guilty about how much free reading I do. When sites do require a fee, if their content is worth it, I gladly pay it. But most don’t ask for anything, and Calibre even lets me bypass their advertising. I know this isn’t sustainable forever, and there are already noises being heard about major commercial sites getting ready to institute new charges. As always, I will pay when I find it worth it. Otherwise, I will give up reading certain sites. That’s the economic marketplace. But, in the meantime, I am like a pig in information slop.

-S.L., 24 September 2009

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