an interview with
Last week's Edition contained
, the maintainer of the Calibre
electronic book manager, but
it did not look deeply at the application itself. Coincidentally, your
editor has been playing with Calibre with renewed interest recently. This
application has made considerable progress since your editor's last look at it
, so a look at
where it has gone is called for. Calibre is not perfect, but it is a
useful tool for a somewhat unwilling newcomer to electronic books.
Your editor is not one to resist progress; the transition from vinyl to
compact disks was handled with no reservations, despite the fact that there
is still something special about those old analog platters. How can one
resist a medium that is bulky and heavy, limited to 30 minutes of play
time, and which degrades with every playing? When CDs, in turn, started to
go away barely a tear was shed. There has been no pining for 8"
floppies, eight-track tapes - or for tape in general. Technology moves
forward, and things get better.
But books are special. They represent an old technology well optimized for
its intended task and are a thing of beauty. Your editor's love of books
has swallowed up vast amounts of time and crowded the house with dead
trees; Cicero's classic proverb ("a room without books is like a body
without a soul") is well respected here. That occasionally leads to
certain amounts of marital stress, but we digress. The point is that the
movement of the written word to an increasingly digital-only form is
something that has been resisted in these parts for some time.
But the writing is on the
wall cloud-based persistent
storage device: books as physical objects are on their way out. Once your
editor got past the denial phase, it became clear that there were even some
advantages to ebooks. They are often cheaper, which is nice. Certain
science fiction authors would appear to be paid by the kilogram; reading
them in electronic form yields the same entertainment value without the
kilograms. Electronic books are especially advantageous when traveling;
the weight involved in carrying sufficient reading material for a family
vacation was, once again, a source of a certain amount of familial
disagreement. Searchability can be a useful feature at times.
There is still nothing like a real book, but the electronic
version is not entirely without its charms.
One does not need to accumulate many ebooks before it becomes clear that
some sort of management scheme is required. Simply keeping books on a
reader device is not really an option; that device may well not be entirely
under the owner's control, its capacity is limited, it can be lost or
damaged, and it eventually will need to be replaced. Just dumping them on a
disk somewhere has problems of its own; some sort of management tool is
needed. For now, in the free software world, Calibre seems to be that tool.
As of this writing, the current version of Calibre is 0.8.16. Releases are
frequent - about one week apart - and each release adds bug fixes and new
features. The web site recommends installing binary releases directly from
there because distributors tend to fall behind that schedule; Rawhide did
not let your editor down, though. Interestingly, those looking for the
source on the Calibre web site can search for a long time; there are no
easily-found pointers to the SourceForge
directory where the source can be found. The program is written in
One thing first-time users won't necessarily notice is that Calibre phones
home when it starts. The ostensible purpose is to check for new releases,
but, in the process, it reports the current running version, the operating
system it is running under (Linux is reported as "oth") and a unique ID
generated when the program is installed - along with the IP address,
naturally. It is not a huge amount of information to report - users of
proprietary reader devices have much larger information disclosure issues
to be concerned about - but it's
still a bit of a privacy violation. Programs that communicate with the
mother ship in this way should really inform their users of the fact and
give them the opportunity to opt out.
The main Calibre window provides a list of books in the library, an
animated "cover browser," a list of metadata types, and a pane for
information about the selected book. By default, somebody just wanting to
look through the books in the library will find less than 1/4 of the
available space dedicated to that task. However, one cannot fault Calibre
for lacking configurability; there are few aspects of the interface that
cannot be tweaked at will. Unwanted stuff is easily gotten rid of.
There is a toolbar across the top with a large number of entries; they do
not all fit unless the window is made quite wide. Some of them can be a
bit confusing; should one import a book with "Add books" or "Get books"?
The icon labeled "N books" (for some value of N) is actually the way to
switch between libraries. "Save to disk" is a bit strange for books in the
library, which are already on disk; it seems to be a way to save a book in
a different format, though how that relates to the "convert books"
operation is not entirely clear. With a bit of time and experimentation,
though, it's not too hard to figure out how things work.
There is a basic reader application built into Calibre; it works well
enough, though, likely as not, few users actually read their books in this
application. Some of its more obnoxious behaviors (the 1/2 second animated
page flip, for example) can be disabled. One thing that cannot be turned
off, though, is the obnoxious "tooltips" that show up on everything. Your
editor has noticed a trend toward these annoyances in a number of
applications; when one can't see the interface through the tips, something
is wrong. As can be seen in the associated screenshot, the "next page"
tooltip obscures the text of the book itself.
Calibre's management of devices seems to work well; when a recognized
device is plugged in, a separate pane showing the contents of that device
is created. Books can be copied between the library and the device at
will; if needed, Calibre will convert the book to a different format on the
way. Your editor's Kindle device Just Works with Calibre; all that was
needed was to plug it in. Android devices also work nicely. The Calibre
site recommends installing WordPlayer on Android, but interoperation with the
open-source FBReader application works well. Aldiko can also be used,
though it is necessary to manually import the book files into the
application after Calibre has placed them on the device.
Naturally, when working with a Kindle, one quickly runs into DRM issues;
Calibre will put up a dialog saying that it cannot work with a locked file
and wish you luck. As it happens, there is a plugin out there that can
decrypt books from a Kindle and store them in a more accessible format.
The Calibre project itself won't go near such plugins, but they are not
hard to find. Whether one sees unlocking an ebook as an exercise of
fair-use rights on a text that one has purchased or as an act of piracy
will depend on one's viewpoint and, perhaps, local law. Your editor can
only say that, if he were able to store his purchased ebooks in a format
that does not require a functioning Kindle or Amazon's continuing
cooperation, he would be much more inclined to buy more such books in the
(The Kindle, incidentally, will eventually be replaced with a more open
device; selecting that device is likely to be the topic of a future
The "Get books" option pops up a dialog that, seemingly, will search every
bookstore on the planet for a given string. Results are listed with their
price, format, and DRM status. The process tends to be slow - not
surprising, given how many
sites must be queried; one will want to trim down the number of sites to
speed things up and eliminate results in undesired languages.
The Calibre developers have clearly been
busy setting up affiliate arrangements with as many of those bookstores as
The proceeds support ongoing development of the code, which
seems like a good cause, certainly.
Another interesting feature is the ability to download articles from
various news sources, format them appropriately, and send them to the
device. In the case of the Kindle, that sending happens immediately over
the Kindle's cellular connection; there is no need to plug the device into
the computer first. Over 1,000 different news sources are supported at
this point. If Calibre is left running, downloads can be scheduled to run
at regular intervals. The value of this feature arguably drops as
always-connected devices take over, but it's easy to see how it could be
indispensable for those who do a fair amount of offline reading.
Wishlist and conclusion
There is a fairly well developed search feature clearly designed with the
idea that there will be thousands of books in the library. Searches can
key on almost any metadata, but there does not seem to be any way to search
for books based on their contents. If you cannot remember which book
introduced the concept of "thalience," Calibre, it seems, will not be able
to help you find it. Indexing a large library to the point where it can be
efficiently searched is not a small task, of course, but there are times
when it would be nice.
Closer integration between Calibre and the reader devices would be useful.
For example, all readers have a concept of bookmarks, or, at least, the
current position within a given book. Imagine having a copy of one's
current book on a phone handset; it would always be at hand when one finds
oneself with an unexpected half hour to kill somewhere. Later, when
curling up by the fire with the spouse, the dog, a glass of wine, and the
real reader, said reader would already know the new position to start
from. No such luck with the reader, alas; even the spouse and the dog
can't always be counted upon. Calibre can't fix the latter, but it could
convey that kind of information between reader devices.
Even nicer, someday, might be to run an application like Calibre directly
on the reader devices, backed up by a library found in
personally-controlled storage on
the net somewhere. Google's Books offering is aiming at that sort of
functionality, without the "personally-controlled" part, but books are too
important to leave in some company's hands. Until such a time arrives,
we'll be left managing our books on a local system and copying them to
devices as needed. Calibre seems
to be the best option there is for that management; it is a capable tool
that does almost everything a reader could want. It definitely helps to
make the transition away from real books a bit less painful.
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