The Best E-Reader for PDF Books

I should have written this a long time ago, but honestly, I thought other people knew. I bought my first e-reader four years ago, and that was only because I was moving to China and wouldn’t be able to take my enormous library with me on the plane, which for me is like a junkie not being able to take his heroin. I was going to get a Kindle because it was the only one I’d even heard of, but then, somehow, I stumbled across the iRiver Story HD. And I’m so glad I did, because it’s been my best friend ever since.

The best thing about the iRiver is the way it handles PDF files. I read a lot of books that have been scanned from actual, physical copies, both they’re free online (such as from Google Books and archive.org) and because I prefer the look of the printed page to the sterile appearance of most e-book fonts and layouts.

Now, the problem with PDFs for most people using some kind of e-ink device is that you’re stuck reading the whole page on a tiny screen, with only a primitive zoom option to help you. Not so with the iRiver Story.

iriver3iRiver’s internal PDF software is made by Adobe and comes with a feature called Text Reflow, which reads the embedded text in a PDF file the same way that other e-readers read the text in an epub, mobi, or Amazon file, fitting it to your screen and allowing you to adjust the font size.

There are two types of PDF files that have embedded text. First are those which are not scanned, but are produced from various word processor programs like Word or Pages. These read very well, basically the same as an epub or mobi file.

Then there are PDFs which are scans of book or magazine pages, and which have been run through an OCR program to recognize the letters on the page and create an embedded text for the document.

A regular OCR program will recognize the text (or not, depending on the quality of the image and how recognizable the letters actually are) and then assign a font to to letters. The result is a text file that is readable, but which looks nothing like the printed page when you turn the Reflow option on.

And unfortunately, most of the free epubs that are available on Google Books and Archive are converted from these shoddy OCR text files, meaning that they are not formatted very well, and are replete with errors.

The best OCR program for scans of books is Adobe’s Clearscan, available as part of Acrobat Pro. Clearscan makes a font from the actual image of the letters as they appear on the page, which means that when you turn on the Reflow, it still looks like the printed page, only bigger, and formatted to your screen. I absolutely love it.

Take a look at this page from Gabriel Marcel’s The Mystery of Being, courtesy of our friends over at Archive:

iriver2

It’s not the best quality scan – the letters have a lot of fuzzy edges – but it’s readable. I ran the page through Clearscan, and now here it is again with Reflow turned on and the text enlarged:

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You can see that not only is it a lot more readable, but it preserves the character of the printed page – literally and figuratively.

With a high quality scan, the results are even better. Here’s a page from The Portable Thomas Wolfe, also courtesy of Archive:

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And here’s the same page, Clearscanned and with Reflow on:

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As you can see, the results are not perfect. Sometimes the lines end up double-spaced for no reason, and you lose the indentation at the beginning of paragraphs. But nonetheless, for the sheer number of books that this feature makes available to you, and at only the cost of the e-reader and the software – I think it’s more than worth it.

As of this writing, the iRiver Story is still available. At only $99 bucks, it’s a steal, even if you just want it for reading epubs and don’t care about PDFs at all. However, iRiver has not actively promoted this product since 2011, and I suspect that they’re just selling off the remaining stock. Which means that you should get yours NOW, because who knows how much longer they’ll be available.

Personally, I’m going to stockpile a few of them unless and until I hear about a better option for reading PDFs.

(If anyone knows of a similar or better e-reader that can handle Clearscan PDFs as well as other file formats, please let me know in the comments.)

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There Are No Shortcuts

I was reflecting this morning on the life of Morihei Ueshiba, the creator of the martial art called Aikido. The name means “the way of harmony,” and the story is that Ueshiba created the art after a spiritual awakening in which he realized the interconnectedness of all phenomena. But before that, he was a ruthless warrior, having participated in numerous death matches with other martial artists, always emerging victorious.

Ueshiba was an exceptional martial artist, and it’s difficult to know where the facts end and legend begins. It is said that he hit a hole in one the first and only time he ever swung a golf club. He also supposedly faced off against a military firing squad, firing live ammunition, and was able to dodge their bullets.

Morihei Ueshiba in 1922, before the creation of Aikido.

Since the founding of Aikido as a martial art, it has attracted numerous students around the world. But none, so far as I am aware, have approached the level of skill of Morihei Ueshiba. Why is that?

I believe one of the reasons might be that, although students undoubtedly would like to arrive at the same high level of skill as the master, they are not actually following the same path that the master walked. Students of Aikido train in Aikido, the system of techniques that Ueshiba developed. But Ueshiba himself trained in older, traditional Japanese and Chinese martial arts. It was only after he had mastered those arts that he had his breakthrough which led to the creation of a new art. But why would someone who didn’t follow the same path be able to realize or practice that new art in the same way?

Jack Kerouac developed a new method of composition that he called “spontaneous prose.” The technique utilizes a quasi-meditative mindset, in which the conscious mind gets out of the way and allows the unconscious (or, as the ancients might have said, the genius, the daemon) to express itself in the writing. In its essence, the idea is quite similar to what a martial artist strives to attain: effortless fluidity and immediate execution of the appropriate technique, without recourse to the conscious mind.

Kerouac never did perfect this method. But he was able to produce some staggeringly beautiful passages in the novels that he wrote in this way, especially Visions of Cody. What mostly gives his “spontaneous prose” a bad name is not his work itself so much as the people who sought to emulate it, without doing the same work that Kerouac did to arrive at it.

Kerouac was steeped in the Classical tradition of Western literature and was an erudite and thoughtful writer, (even if verbose at times.) It was only after working through other, more traditional methods of writing that he arrived at his new method of spontaneous prose. But many people who heard about this new method simply went ahead writing down whatever undisciplined garbage passed through their untrained minds, deluding themselves into believing that it could be as good as the work of a seasoned and trained writer.


People are always looking for shortcuts. We would like to be able to achieve the same levels of greatness – in art or business or sports or whatever the field may be – as the great masters, but very few of us are really willing to do the same amount of work that most if not all of those masters put in in order to attain their high levels of skill. And it doesn’t help if the teacher takes a “Do-as-I-say, not-as-I-did” approach.

What’s worse, there are countless fools and charlatans who shouldn’t be teaching at all, who attempt to cash in on our desire for a shortcut by selling quick-fixes and empty promises of easy attainment. There’s no foolproof method of discerning who has something worthwhile to offer and who is just selling snake oil. But I think two things to look for are: 1) whether or not this person has himself done what he is recommending to others; and 2) whether or not the person giving advice on “how to succeed” has ever accomplished anything significant besides writing a book or producing a seminar.

For example, ten years ago the big thing was The Secret. I didn’t read the book, but I saw the film, and I noticed that everyone featured in it giving testimony as to the great efficacy of practicing “the Secret” all had one thing in common: they all made their living as teachers of The Secret. They wrote books, sold seminars, or led church-type groups. Supposedly, all these men and women have mastered the art of manifesting reality with their thoughts and intentions, and yet the only thing that any of them can think to do is to make money selling this idea to other people.

In other words, it’s a pyramid scheme. I don’t deny that positive thinking and deliberate intentionality are good things, but they aren’t shortcuts. The best philosophy to have, in my humble opinion, is this:

There Are No Shortcuts. Just Do The Damn Work.

 

Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see, as the old saying goes. Pay attention to what people do and have done, not what they say and talk about. And even if the author or speaker is genuinely successful, what guarantee is there that he’s being honest with you about how he achieved that success? Maybe he’s successful because he’s a cheat and a liar – he wouldn’t be the first – and maybe the last thing he wants is for you or anyone else to join the ranks of his competitors.

But then, don’t take my word for it. I’m a Cretan, and we’re all liars, the lot of us. But I’m a more honest liar than most.

The Tao of James Altucher

James Altucher is an accomplished writer and businessman, and certainly one of the better people putting out material on self-improvement and being an entrepreneur in the emerging new economy. I’m reading The Choose Yourself Guide to Wealth at the moment, and was struck by this little nugget of wisdom:

IMPORTANT: Every day, your body requires energy to survive, to think, to do well, to be happy. You don’t get infinite energy. One way to replenish energy is to sleep. The other way is to eat well and to exercise. But another way to replenish energy is to live a gentle life. As gently as possible. So your energy grows and is used where it is needed. Which means all negotiations need to be smooth else they result in anxiety and fear and guessing and out-guessing and much future depletion of energy. And then you die faster than the one who lived gently.

This could be a commentary on the Dao De Jing, or a text on qigong energy work. When I studied Taijiquan years ago, a martial art which is rooted in Daoist philosophy and spirituality, I was taught that the main principle of Taiji is relax. Relax and conserve your energy. When you’re doing all the various movements and postures that make up the Taiji exercise, you have to consciously and completely relax every muscle in your body, as much as you can.  Then relax more.  Then relax some more.  We were constantly made to stop in mid-form, do a body scan, and find where we were holding tension in our bodies – then let it go.  The purpose is to economize your energy expenditure, to make your movements as efficient and effortless as possible.  In the West, the Alexander Technique is based on similar principles.

The other part of this is to relax your mind, your thoughts. If you think you can relax your muscles and body while still having crazy neurotic angry self-loathing blaming selfish ungrateful thoughts running full stream though your mind, good luck with that. You can’t, and one of the things Taiji practitioners learn is that relaxing the body helps relax the mind, and relaxing the mind helps relax the body. In Taiji, the mind is focused on the dantian, the body’s center.  This prevents it from running amok and getting lost in all kinds of wasteful, unnecessary thoughts.

My teacher said that this wasn’t just an approach to doing Taiji – actually, he never said “doing” Taiji, he always said “playing” – but to everything in your life.  Why waste energy needlessly?

As James Altucher and F. Matthias Alexander show, one needn’t be a Taijiquan practitioner or a Daoist to apply these insights and principles.  You can check to see if you’re holding unnecessary tension and stress in your body and mind, and when you find it, you can let it go.  Then, when it comes back – because it always comes back – you can let it go again.  And relax more.  You can focus your mind on something positive, or something calm and gentle, rather than letting it wander aimlessly, focusing on any of the hundred and eight thousand forms of bullshit that will do you no good at all, but which will suck the energy out of you like a vampire and make you die faster.

Check out James’ book, and his blog as well.  If you want to read a 20th century Taiji master’s commentary on the Dao De Jing, check out Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s Lao Tzu: My Words Are Very Easy To Understand.

 

How to Get New Ideas (In Ancient China)

Pu Songling, maybe doing a Buddhist or Daoist mudra with his hand – or maybe holding a cigarette in the peculiar manner of old Chinese men. I can’t tell which.

A story from Chinese history gives us an interesting and effective way to gather new ideas.

蒲松龄 Pu Songling was a teacher and writer during the Qing dynasty. He’s remembered today for being the author of the 聊齋誌異 Liaozhai ZhiyiStrange Tales From A Chinese Studio. It’s rather like a Chinese version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and contains some five hundred stories.  The book was made into a television program in China years ago. Here is how the author got many of his stories:

Pu Songling owned a tea house, and the tea house had a policy:  You could pay for your tea like a normal customer, or you could have your tea on the house – but you had to sit down and tell a story. Songling did this for years, slowly amassing his marvelous collection of tales.  Long before the internet or kickstarter, he crowdsourced his book, not by collecting money, but by collecting stories.

I was thinking about whether it would still be possible to use this method today. If anyone wants to try, next time you’re at Starbucks or your neighborhood cafe, get a french press and some espresso cups, and offer a free mini-cup of coffee in exchange for a story.  You could even record them on your phone and podcast them, or transcribe them and publish them as “Strange Tales from an American Cafe,” or wherever you happen to be located.

Used Bookstores of Hong Kong

Collectables books and music
Collectables books and music in Central (old location)

Back in my hometown, one of my favorite ways to spend a day was to visit all the used bookstores in the downtown area.  There were about five of them, and I could ride my bike from one to the other, looking for hidden gems of wisdom amidst the stacks of torn paperbacks and old hardcovers that had long been separated from their dust jackets.  Aside from being cheaper, old books have an air of authenticity about them – quite literally an air, since you can smell it.  Someone told me that it’s actually the smell of mold, but I much prefer to think of it as the lingering presence of the past.  I also love the smell of dank basements, so maybe I’m just weird like that.

In new bookstores, you pretty much know what you’re going to find: what’s new and what’s enduringly popular.  I used to work at a corporate chain bookstore many years ago, and I know how they place their orders.  Anything cool and obscure in the store was due to the efforts of us, the employees, hacking into the special order database and getting it.  How some of those very same titles that we ordered later went missing from the inventory is a mystery of the ages.

In used bookstores, you never know what you’re going to find – except for a few things that you DO know you will find, such as copies of Eckhart Tolle, The Celestine Prophecy and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, inscribed by some hippie girl to her now ex-boyfriend, who promptly traded them in unread as soon as they broke up.  “To my wonderful Adam, May your Soul soar and your Heart live in love, Love, LOVE!!! Peace and Light, Moira.”  Yuck.

Nonetheless, used bookstores are magical.  When you find something really cool in a used bookstore, it feels like God or the universe or whatever put it there just for you.  After all, what are the chances that someone else in the area had this book, then traded it in at just the right time so that you could find it now, exactly when you need a copy of Clausewitz’ On War?

If I had this feeling of being spoken to by the gods at used bookstores in the States, I have it tenfold in Hong Kong, where there’s no guarantee that a bookstore has books in English, let alone a particular book that’s of interest to me.  Also, the used bookstores in my hometown are almost all gone.  Four of the five that I used to visit during my mini bike tours of downtown have long since closed, victims of Amazon.com.

But there is no Amazon.com.hk, and to my pleasant surprise while exploring the city, I found that there are five used bookstores in Hong Kong, mostly within walking distance of each other and perfect for whiling away an afternoon in the imaginary world of words.  Five used bookstores, just like the old days back home.  As Gatsby says, “Can’t repeat the past?  Of course you can, old sport.”

The Bookstores (for those of you just here for the info)

We’ll start in Central.  Get off the metro at Exit B and head west on Des Voeux Road for three blocks until you come to Queen Victoria Street.  Make a left and head north up the street.  On this block, you’ll see an English sign amidst all the Chinese signs that says:

Queen Victoria Street, Central
Queen Victoria Street, Central

That ain’t it, although JP Books is a nice NEW bookstore which does have a small selection of English books and which also sells really good coffee from some Fair Trade co-op type thing. No, what you want is a few more stores further, which looks like this:

Collectables storefront
Collectables signage

Go up the stairs and you’ll find Collectables on the 2nd or 3rd floor (sorry, I can’t remember which – it’s from breathing in too much mold.)

(UPDATE January 2017: Collectables has moved. The new address is 1/F, City Hall Low Block, 5 Edinburgh Place, Central.)

Collectables is awesome, and might just be my favorite of all the stores in this post, because in addition to a great selection of used books, they also have used dvds, cds, and … (drum roll) … VINYL!!!  This includes vintage goodies from the glory days of Canto-Pop as well as Western music.  As for the books, they’re kinda-sorta organized by topic, though with a good number of misplaced items scattered throughout (which is as it should be.)  They have a good selection of history books, as well as a lot of Buddhist books and some really obscure old literary criticism from the mid 20th century.  And as with all the other bookstores, they also have a section of books on China, since most of us foreigners here are trying like hell to understand this place and have made our way through several books in that effort.

From Collectables, you can keep heading up towards the Peak and grab the Mid-Levels Escalator on the next block, Queen’s Road Central.  Our next destination is FlowBooks, which used to be located a few blocks up on Hollywood Road in the Wing On Building.  But when I went there last time, I found they had moved.  However, they were kind enough to leave the new address.

Flow's new address
Flow’s new address

The new location is only a block down from the old, so what you want to do is get off the escalator at Gage Street and go the HSBC building.  Inside you will find:

FlowBooks interior
FlowBooks interior

Flow is much more disorganized than Collectables, perhaps reflecting their move to a new location, or perhaps just the steady flow of books through the place.  Like Collectables, they have a good selection of Buddhist books (though not as good) but also a large selection of New Age stuff.  Perhaps these should not be shelved together, as I once heard a Buddhist lama say that “New Age” should pronounced “newage” as in “rhymes with sewage.”

The real strength of the place, though, is their selection of fiction, mostly newer titles.  I regret not buying the newest James Ellroy title last time I was there.  But more than that, I really regret not buying the pristine hardcover copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel which I saw at their old location.  By all appearances it was a first edition from the 30s, except that it was so new it couldn’t possibly have been.  Special reprint edition?  Chinese pirate copy?  Magic, I tell you.

Flow also has sections of sports and exercise books, cookbooks, foreign languages and large coffee table books.  Their name seems to reflect their dedication to recycling and conscious living, which in spite of my little pokes and jabs and disagreements, I do respect.  Especially since, in this case, I directly benefit from it.

After leaving Flow, you have a couple different options for what’s next, as unfortunately there is not one best trajectory to hit all the stores.  Since I’m giving you the addresses of all these places, you’re welcome to find which buses go from which to which if you want.  I’m limiting my info to the MTR.  Head back down to Des Voeux Road or walk around Soho as you please – there are lots of great places to grab lunch – but one way or another get yourself back to the MTR.  The next two bookstores are both near the new Sai Ying Pun station.

Near Exit C, just one block south on Park Road, is Books & Co., which wins the prize for cleanest, nicest, and all around loveliest lil’ bookstore you ever seen.  They also serve food, so if you don’t want to be bookless for even a moment on your trip, you can grab lunch there.  I first read about Books & Co. at a now-defunct blog called Check Out Hong Kong, which had tons of info on obscure stores, restaurants and other locales in Hong Kong.

Near Exit A2 of Sai Ying Pun is the new location of the very first used bookstore that I found in Hong Kong.  Booksmart used to be located a few blocks down on Des Voeux Road West, closer to the Sheung Wan station, but they recently moved to a new spot.  Unfortunately, the weekend that I went there to grab pics, they were closed, so I can’t give you any info on their new store, but I can tell you that the previous location was exceptionally well-organized and the woman behind the counter was always very friendly and helpful.  The selection at Booksmart is strong on fiction, with books divided by genre, which is especially nice.  If you’re a sci-fi or mystery lover, this is the place for you.  They also have (or at least had) sections for: Biography, Health, History, Philosophy, Business, Self-Help, and Languages, as well as a separate section for Kids books.  I hope to visit their new location soon, and I’ll update this post if necessary.

Last but not least, we depart from Hong Kong Island and make our way to Kowloon; more specifically, to the chaotically crowded streets of Mong Kok.  I was first introduced to this area as the place to buy shoes, which it is, but unbeknownst to most, there is a building just outside of Exit E2 which is home to not one but TWO awesome bookstores.  Mathematically-gifted readers are now saying, “Hey – that makes SIX bookstores!”  But one of these two is a new bookstore, albeit with a small used section.

From Exit E2, wade through the maddening crowd to Sai Yeung Choi South Street.  Just across the street on the left you’ll see this place:

Two for the price of one.

On the staircase next to it, go up to the 6th floor and you will find Plum Cultivator, a wonderful little used bookstore with about a 50/50 selection of Chinese and English books.

Plum Cultivator 1

Plum Cultivator 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The English books are mostly in that back corner.  It’s a rather small selection of mostly non-fiction history and business books, and also some fiction, but I’ve found some real gems in there, most notably some 1970s Australian mass market paperbacks of Philip K. Dick.  My last visit yielded a copy of the late Martin Booth’s book on the triads.  In the regrettables category, I really wish I would have bought that coffee table book of Frank Frazetta artwork when I saw it there.  Sigh.

After perusing the selection at Plum Cultivator, make your way up to the 7th floor for the final destination of our day’s journey.  This is Hong Kong Reader, a new bookstore-cafe which specializes in philosophy books.

A panoramic shot of Hong Kong Reader
A panoramic shot of Hong Kong Reader

The first time I went there, the small seating area on the stage was packed with people listening to a man giving a lecture in Cantonese.  I asked an employee what was going on, and he replied that it was a lecture on Friedrich Nietzsche.  After silently lamenting my total inability to speak or understand Cantonese, I left.

The English sections at Hong Kong Reader are, if memory serves, Philosophy, Literature and Sociology.  The books are new and hence a little pricey, but the fact is, if you’re one of the few people looking for a copy of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus or Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, you’re not going to find it anywhere else.  They do, however, have a small used section in which I’ve found some good books.  They also have a nice little seating area where you can get a cup of coffee and lose yourself in the great thoughts of East and West.

Coming back to Shenzhen after a day in Hong Kong always makes me a bit sad.  The differences between the two neighboring cities are vast, and could easily be the subject of another post.  Perhaps they will be.  In the meantime, if any readers know of any other used bookstores to add to the list, please leave a comment with the information.