An Open Letter To Barnes & Noble About Text Files

Dear Barnes & Noble,

Your ebook reader can't even read text files. This is ridiculous.

I Finally Like Ebooks

For a very long time, I resisted the growing ebook craze, mostly because reading books in digital format was such a chore on my laptop that it would actually discourage me from reading. With the advent of the Kindle, some of that changed -- but Amazon's DRM scheme really rubbed me the wrong way, and most of the books I wanted were not available for the Kindle, or at least for any notable discount off hardcopy prices. Spending full price (incredibly even more than full price, in some cases) on a book that I do not even get to put on my shelf and loan to others on top of the exhorbitant price of ebook reader devices might seem a bit unreasonable.

Even at a discount off the hardcopy price, though, I hesitate. I have finally developed a system for deciding whether it is worthwhile to buy an ebook: if it is cheap enough to make up for the fact I cannot sell it to a used book store if it turns out to not be good enough to keep, I will consider buying it. In fact, once it meets such criteria, the ebook becomes my preferred format for reading purposes if there is not a remarkably high chance that I will want a hardcopy on my shelf for the old-school love of paper pages. It turns out that it is really difficult to beat the portability of ebooks on a good ebook reader. Still, with the prices of hardcopy books on Amazon as low as they are, the price of an ebook tends to have to get really low (in comparison to cover price for the hardcopy) to make up for the loss of resale value. Luckily, it looks like things are getting to the point where something like a third of available ebooks for sale meet my criteria. An ebook reader is finally worth owning.

I Love My Nook

I have had a Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch Reader for about a week as of this writing.

The Art of Unix Programming (TAOUP) is an excellent example of what I like about my Nook. In the last half-dozen years or so, I have made several attempts to read TAOUP, using PDF, HTML, and plain text digital versions of it. In each case, I never quite got past Chapter 4: Modularity (the first chapter of Part II), because of the difficulty I have with reading books on a computer (and sometimes not even that far). I have even tried using an ebook reader application on my smartphone, and found that the lack of convenient physical buttons and the small size of the screen offer some annoying obstacles to easy reading.

In the last week, in addition to getting a decent chunk of the way into two other books and reading almost an entire magazine on my Nook, I have started from scratch on TAOUP and already gotten most of the way through Chapter 7: Multiprocessing, despite the file format problems I have encountered (more on that later). I might even be making better progress through it than if I had it in hardcopy. I also still have about 60% of my initial battery charge left, which is pretty damned nice. To put that in some kind of context, take note of the fact that I've had to charge my smartphone three times since I got the Nook.

It turns out that dedicated ebook reader devices are pretty nice. There are (unsurprisingly, I hope) still some books that I will always get in hardcopy. For instance, I plan to get another copy each of Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Tao Te Ching and Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics -- I gave away my previous copies of both, each to a different person -- and hardcopy is what I need for both, in part because of their giftability.

Format Problems

There are some minor issues with some typical ebook formats. For instance, a BSD Magazine PDF can be a little inconvenient when I try to read it on my Nook Simple Touch Reader. An EPUB format copy would be awfully nice. In cases where there are tools for translating ebooks from one format to another, however, the tools are often pretty flawed, and sometimes produce some garbled messes where everything seems fine until you get to Chapter 4 and discover that you are reading text from Chapter 1 again, or after finishing Chapter 2 you wonder why there is another copy of the Table of Contents in front of you. Even without translating formats, however, text sometimes ends up displayed out of order because of the difference between the way PDF layouts are designed and (evidently) the way an ebook reader without much layout awareness deals with the structure of the PDF file romat. It's a bit like what often happens when you try to translate a PDF into a plain text file.

Readability has not been an issue, though waiting for the next page of a PDF to load or having to skip through a dozen pages half a page at a time because part of an earlier chapter has resurfaced due to a faulty format translation is kind of annoying from time to time. Hopefully this will not become a big problem once I start mining Project Gutenberg for reading material.

No Really -- Format Problems

You may recall when I said, a few paragraphs ago, that TAOUP is an excellent example of what I like about my Nook. Sadly, it is also an excellent example of what I find most egregiously, catastrophically awful about my Nook. The single most asinine, absurd, ridiculous thing about my Nook is its handling of text files. It's not that Nook handles them badly, mind you. The problem is that the Nook does not recognize text files at all. The Nook Color does so, but then, it is basically just a tablet computer with some of its functionality gimped -- and my experience with both tablets in general and reading ebook readers on LCD (and CRT) displays has taught me to avoid that option when I buy an ebook reader (to say nothing of the absurdity of paying double just to read plain text files).

Seriously, Barnes & Noble, plain text is unarguably the most universal digital data format in the world. In fact, every digital document format the Nook supports requires it to be able to parse text within those documents. Despite this, the plain text version of TAOUP in the form of a taoup.txt file is apparently an incomprehensible alien artifact from the point of view of the Nook Simple Touch Reader. This is not just a bad feature choice. It is perversely, stupidly, downright maliciously wrong. How can it not support plain text without someone in the Barnes & Noble executive staff saying "No, we don't want to support plain text," because of some kind of desire to make things difficult for customers? "It'll encourage them to pay for EPUBs from the Barnes & Noble store rather than get plain text from the Internet for public domain books," I imagine this hypothetical blow-dried douche wearing a suit that cost twice as much as my motorcycle saying in a mahogany-appointed conference room while sitting in a lushly cushioned chair upholstered in the flesh of baby seals and unbaptized children. It takes effort to fail to support plain text files while including support for at least six other, more complex digital document formats. Hell, you could at least have installed the more utility (or a thirty-minute minimally functional replacement for it) on the thing. How difficult is that?

Because of the problems with PDFs, I decided to use an ebook format translator to turn my taoup.txt file into an EPUB file. The result is the hash made of the book's organization mentioned above. Remember when I mentioned tables of contents repeated throughout a book and chunks of early chapters duplicated within later chapters? Yeah, that was the result of translating TAOUP from a plain text file to the EPUB format. Congratulations, Barnes & Noble; you have made the incredibly easy task of paging through a text file into an ordeal on the order of translating a WordPress database of articles into a publishable book (not a task you should attempt if you have much of a choice in the matter).

I Still Love My Nook

I will keep reading, and keep enjoying the convenience and pleasant UI of the Nook Simple Touch Reader. Thanks for making this alternative to the Kindle available to me. Sure, the Kindle supports plain text, but its drawbacks are enough to make me prefer my Nook anyway (though not as much as I preferred it before it occurred to me that it might not support plain text). It really is a great device, and I am sure a great many people at Barnes & Noble deserve to be commended for their parts in designing it.

Whoever decided that supporting plain text was a bad idea, though, needs to get fired, preferably with real fire.

Thanks for listening to an appreciative customer,

Chad Perrin

PS: Thanks to apo of #suckless for suggesting the executive summary at the beginning of this letter.