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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
Reducing Book Clutter (Part 5): Electronic Books

Until now, this series on decluttering books has focused on methods of acquisition and dispersal: renting, trading and borrowing. But one reader wrote me after the first post, rejecting the premise of the series -- she couldn't get past the notion that books could equal clutter.

Books, per se, are not clutter, but too many books without homes (shelves, cases, etc.) and no system to care for or retrieve them, does constitute clutter. Renting, trading and borrowing offers the opportunity to acquire books, read them, and, for those titles one is unlikely to read again, send them on their way. Imagine if you "kept" every television program or movie you ever watched or every song you ever listened to, whether on tape or CD or DVD. Eventually, you would run out of space, and without space, you lose organization.

But what if space were not an issue? MP3s help us acquire and keep the music we love without fear of being crowded out of our homes. Thus, this week and next, we'll focus not on methods of acquisition, but formats which minimize clutter while maximizing our enjoyment of books.


Ebooks are electronic versions of books, formatted to be read on computers, cell phones or special electronic ebook readers. Devices include Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook, Apple's iPad, Sony's Reader and various others.

Different devices accept different formats. For example, Amazon created the proprietary AZW format specifically for use with the Kindle, but there are multiple formats that work on computers as well as most gadgets, like .epub, .pdf, .html, .txt, .mobi, etc.


Portability -- If you're a voracious reader, carrying the multiple books you're reading concurrently can be a pain. Having one small, manageable device giving you access to thousands of titles whenever you want is pretty appealing.

Searchability -- Don't you hate it when you can't find that one phrase or statistic you need? I am forever seeking my favorite literary snippet, from Suzanne Finnamore's Otherwise Engaged:

Yes, I can just use a bookmark or tape flag, but what if a book were full of important quotes? Most ebook reader software offers search as a feature, and browser-based platforms let you use your browser's search function. With many e-reader software formats, you can not only search, but also bookmark and annotate material without any damage to the original or fear of your bookmark fluttering away into cyberspace while reading Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.

Immediacy -- Whether you're using Amazon's Whispernet or the internet, the moment you want an ebook, you can order and/or download it and access it within minutes, without ever getting out of your chair.

Savings -- Because ebooks cost less to produce, in most cases that cost savings trickles down to the reader.

Environmental Friendliness -- Sure, metal and plastic go into the making of these devices, but no trees are killed, and there's practically no carbon footprint associated with "manufacturing" ebooks.


Tactile sensation -- There's nothing like curling up with a favorite old book. Depending on the titles in your personal library, you may be able to tell which book is which by the color, binding, typeface, heft, feel of the pages...even the scent. When you read digitally, every book feels the same. Kinda beige.

Digital Rights Management -- Unlike hard-copy books which you own in full, ebooks with DRM protection can't be copied, sold or shared. (Barnes & Noble does have a two-week LendMe feature.) The books you buy are yours, but not "all" yours.

Impermanence -- As long as you don't drop your book in a bubble path or let a three-year-old attack it with scissors and crayons, there's not much you can do to a traditional book to make it unusable. This is not the case with electronic books.

If you have an ebook saved to your computer or e-reader and have not backed up (to Dropbox, Carbonite, etc.), a crash can wipe out your library. (Note: Kindle users can store their titles in their accounts and gain access even if their hardware fails; unfortunately, one can only save Amazon purchases and not free books acquired elsewhere).

There are other back-up options. For example, Bookworm is a free personal ebook library where you can store (and read) your digital books. Once your epub-formatted titles are uploaded, Bookworm organizes the chapters and individual pages for easy navigation and browsing, and you can search for specific words, phrases or references. Read books directly from your Bookworm library on any mobile device or online.

Changing technologies also cause impermanence. Floppy discs gave way to very un-floppy diskettes, and now everything's on CD or flash drives. Technology is often not backward compatible. One has to wonder how easy it will be to access the books bought for the original Kindle or Nook a dozen years from now.

Commercial mistakes also lead to impermanence. Last year, when Amazon learned it had mistakenly sold digital copies of certain George Orwell books to Kindle users, consumers awoke to find Amazon had used wi-fi to remove the books from their Kindles overnight and credit their accounts. How very 1984! Imagine your corner bookshop proprietor sneaking into your home late at night to retrieve a copy of the book you bought last week and leaving a $20 bill on the bookshelf in its place. Creepy.

Format incompatibility -- As noted above, there are different formats and they do not always play nicely with one another. When I asked on Twitter what people didn't like about their e-reader devices, almost every response was a variation on "No easy way to convert existing PDFs to Kindle-friendly/reflowable format..." It's not always easy, but it is possible.

Calibre is a free, open source (Windows-, Mac- and Linux-compatible) application that lets you manage all of your ebooks across multiple platforms and formats. Use Calibre to import and manage titles in your collection, one title at a time or whole directories, synchronize multiple devices and most importantly, convert between formats. Calibre can convert among all of the following digital book formats: epub, FB2, lit, lrf, mobi, PDB, PDF, PMLZ, RB, RTF, TCR and txt.

Stanza is a similar freeware application for use with the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. It supports exporting a wide variety of formats for use on various third-party devices and provides access to an online catalog of thousands of free classic books. You can also use Stanza to organize your library share books by dragging titles into your iTunes library.


Annotating -- You can annotate an ebook (in many formats), but because you're doing it digitally instead of manually, it's not the same tactile experience. Thus, annotating an ebook doesn't go as far for fixing a concept in memory as taking notes might.

Bookmarking -- Many formats allow for bookmarking. But if you normally use sentimental objects or visually appealing bookmarks in your tangible books, finding your place in a digital book lacks the same pizzazz.

Sharing -- A true joy of reading is sharing with others. Depending on the device and format, DRM restrictions may prevent you from sharing your ebooks. With a PDF, it's as simple as emailing an attachment or putting it in a shared Dropbox folder. However, Nook's LendMe only lets you lend any book one time, and with Kindle, you can't share at all.


Ebooks offer the opportunity to acquire books immediately, carry multiple titles at once and search with ease. Tangible books are sentimental and romantic and just feel right. Of course, there's no need to choose between the two. Once you find a format you like, acquire ebooks for titles you're likely to read only once (or for a limited period of time); buy your favorite books and works by your favorite authors in tangible versions that let you keep the experience alive. Have your cake and eat it, too.


There are countless sources on the web for purchasing books in electronic form, from massive bookstores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble to individual websites that sell PDFs you can read on your computer (like my own Tickle Yourself Organized). However, the best way to experiment with a new option is to do so without any potential for loss. The following are excellent free options for ebooks, available in formats that should work on most e-readers as-is or with some file conversion:

Project Gutenberg is the original ebook repository, started in 1971 as a project to digitally archive cultural works specifically for electronic dissemination. Download over 33,000 free books to your computer, iPad, Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, iPhone, iPod Touch, Android or smart phone for free. The copyright on all Project Gutenberg titles have expired in the U.S., putting them in the public domain. Most books are available in plain text, but epub, PDF, HTML and other formats are available, too. Search by author, title or genre, or browse the online bookshelves, whether from your computer or digital device.

ManyBooks has an attractive interface offering over 28,000 free digital books and a variety of digital conversion tools so you can read the book you want in the format most useful to you. Register for free, then browse by author, title, genre or even language, and peruse the site's list of new and recommended titles. Categories range from adventure to women's studies, banned books to instructional titles, cookbooks to correspondence, plus the standard fiction and non-fiction. You can get RSS feeds of newly listed titles to discover unexpected gems.

Feedbooks is a particular boon to Kindle users, who sometimes have difficulty getting non-Amazon public domain books onto their devices. Download the Feedbooks Kindle-formatted catalog via your built-in browser or download to your computer and copy it to your Kindle via USB cable. With your wireless access turned on, browse, select and download from Feedbooks just as you would from Amazon, only the books will be free and in the public domain.

Your Own Public Library -- Visit your public library's website to see if they offer the ability to "borrow" ebooks. Library Finder at Sony's Reader Store helps you locate a library, and as long as you have a library card suitable for a brick and mortar branch, you should be able to access epub- and PDF- formatted ebooks for free.

Perseus Digital Library -- How do you feel about Greek and Roman classics? If "All Gaul is divided into three parts" is up your alley, then Catullus, Cicero, Virgil, Homer and the gang are waiting here for you to download them in .txt format.

Books In My Phone allows you to acquire books that are either out of copyright or licensed under Creative Commons, but you don't need an e-reader. Any java-enabled cell phone becomes a book reader, and BIMP's reader software is packaged with each book. Search books by author, title or category tag, from either your computer or cell phone. Then either download the book to your computer to install on your phone later (using no cell minutes) or download books directly to your phone (incurring cell provider charges). If a call interrupts your reading, you can pause the book; it automatically remembers where you left off when you open the "book" again.

DailyLit -- If you're not sure how you'd like reading non-paper versions of books, get a taste test by receiving bits of books by email. DailyLit is a free service that breaks books down into short installments and emails them to you. Read on your computer, smart phone or PDA. You choose how many installments you wish to read each day, and you can "push" to have more installments sent right away, whenever you like.

Whether you choose to read just some or all books electronically, knowing that ebooks are an option can help you keep your ebook clutter at bay.

posted on: 9/28/2010 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

by Julie Bestry

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Julie Bestry, President of Best Results Organizing in Chattanooga, TN, is a Certified Professional Organizer®, speaker and author. Julie helps overwhelmed individuals and businesses save time and money, reduce stress and increase productivity through new organizational skills and systems.

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