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Weekend pick

Reading books on the Internet has become easier. But not easy enough!

Lindsay Pereira | September 06, 2003 13:38 IST

I was stoned when my editor called. And when I say 'stoned', I mean 'under the influence of alcohol' (sorry, mom).

But, I digress. One tends to do that when one is stoned.

"Would you like to review a really good Web site?" Ed asked. "Okay," I slurred. He was happy. "I knew I could depend on you," he said, hanging up. To be honest, given the state I was in, I would have said "Okay" even if Ed were to ask, "Will you wear pink shorts and sell bread at Super Bakery for a living?" But, a commitment is a commitment and I am a man of honour. So, the minute I began thinking clearly again, the next morning, I logged on to the Digital Book Index.

My first opinion: It looked really bad! Was I to review this plain-looking site with graphics that looked as if they had been designed by a six-year-old? I called Ed. "Delve deeper, idiot," he said, in his endearing manner. So I did.

The Index, I found, brought together an astonishing number of electronic books, from the highly scholarly to the contemporary and popular, culled from an equally astonishing number of sources. All to make life a whole lot simpler for libraries, as well as people like you and I. I was impressed. Here before me, apparently, was a ticket to more than 73,000 titles, encompassing eBooks from over 1800 publishers and private publishing organisations.

"Yeahhhh, baby!!" I yelled, doing my Austin Powers impersonation and scaring my brother's cat.

It got better as I checked out the fine print. Most of the stuff – primarily works with copyrights long expired – was free; the charges for some texts, if any, were nominal by an organisation's standards. All one had to do was download a preferred reader – Adobe Acrobat and eBook, MS Reader, Palm Reader, .NetLibrary Reader, etc. – and start reading.

Social science? It was there. Women's studies? Ditto. Dictionaries? Over 2,000 (why? what could anyone do with 2,000 dictionaries?) Nancy Drew mysteries? Oh, yes. The sources of these texts were as diverse and mind-boggling; everything from the Gutenberg Project and Library of Congress eTexts to around 200 University Presses and several hundred commercial publishers including Random House, Simon & Schuster, MacMillan and Bantam Books.

"Yeahhhh, baby! Yeahhhh, baby! Yeahhhh, baby!" I went, the cat, at this point, deciding to lie down and expire quietly. This was too good to be true; there had to be a downside.

And then, as if to mock me, there was.

One could search by author, title or subject, or browse authors' and publishers' lists. I tried the exhaustive subjects list and decided to begin with Indian literature. What I got was, well, disappointing. 'The Selected Poetry of Rabindranath Tagore' or A K Ramanujan's 'A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India'. The latter was freely downloadable in HTML, but would cost me $48 for the NetLibrary format. Funny.

My next stop was women writers and writing. Nineteen pages with everything from Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women' (1869) to Zitkala-Sa's American Indian Stories (1921). Good, but not good enough. My keyword search for Gilbert and Gubar's seminal work, 'The Madwoman in the Attic', for instance, got me J D Beazley's 'The Development Of Attic Black-figure' and Sydney Fowler Wright's 'The Attic Murder'. Something simpler? 'Arundhati' and 'Roy' threw up Frank Conroy's 'Selected Writings', Frances Hodgson Burnett's 'Little Lord Fauntleroy' and Andrew Lang's 'Helen of Troy'!

My Austin Powers tone began to fade, as I grew just a little desperate. The Music ( section had Rob Hutten's 'The Blues Bibliographic Database' and 'Art, Life, & Theories of Richard Wagner', but nothing on popular music. As a last ditch attempt to salvage something I could use, I looked for Shakespeare's 'King Lear'. They have got to have Shakespeare, I thought. Even the squalid circulating library near Super Bakery has Shakespeare. But, nope. Some 1997 study notes came up, along with other strange titles such as Michael Barratt's 'Making the Most of Retirement.' How the latter was connected to King Lear in any way was a mystery that Shakespeare alone could, possibly, unravel. I knew I couldn't.

My verdict, then? For a researcher or librarian, The Digital Book Index was impressive. Very impressive. What you would need to appreciate it fully, however, were good search skills and a whole lot of patience. I decided I had neither. So, I logged off, put the phone off the hook (Ed could be very persistent at times) and poured myself a nice shot of vodka.

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