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Getting bookishly appy with the iPhone

September 3, 2009 | 12:00 pm

Literaryiphone

Lately people have been asking me with excitement what apps I've got on my iPhone, and I shrug and change the subject. It's a phone, it plays music, it gives me directions, it lets me e-mail from as many accounts as I like, allows me to vet the comments on this blog, check Twitter. ... Do I really want it to do anything else?

Well, yes. Budd Parr of Chekhov's Mistress inspired me with his literary iPhone, particularly by shelling out the $49.99 for the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. The price might seem high if you don't know the charms of the Oxford English Dictionary, which goes down paths of usage both historical and linguistic, providing marvelous contextual examples. The full version is 12 CDs for $295, so this condensed version is a bargain, if pricier than most apps.

There are separate apps for many books in the public domain, either as stand-alones, like Bram Stoker's "Dracula," or organized by author, like Jane Austen. But if having a separate app for each book or author seems inefficient -- and it does to me -- you have a choice of several apps that let you download and organize lots of public domain books. One that people seem to like is Classics, which has a luxurious-looking interface, including illustrations, and costs just 99 cents. But so far it includes just 15 books, and while it does have the tragically underread "Flatland," the others are pretty greatest-hits ("The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "The Call of the Wild").

By contrast, there are 20,000 free books available on the Eucalyptus app (inset, pictured). Its books all have a uniform cover design, with bars of color across the top and bottom and the title in the center on white (reminiscent of Penguin's midcentury covers). Its pages appear to have the texture of high-quality paper, the text appears in paragraph form like it traditionally does in print (paragraphs are indented and flow together, rather than the Web style you see here), and the pages turn beautifully. Through its search, you can download any English-language text from Project Gutenberg, reengineered for the application. It took just seconds to download all of "Swann's Way" by Marcel Proust; after books are downloaded you can access them by author or from a title/author list. At $9.99, it's not cheap, but it's currently a top-20 seller in the books apps section of the iTunes store, so others must have noticed its high-quality interface.

Speaking of high-quality interfaces, I have to turn to Stanza

Stanza is loaded with extra bells and whistles: With a single tap, you can switch to white-text-on-black (for lower-light reading); you can manually set color schemes and page-turning sounds. There are so many design choices you could waste hours configuring and reconfiguring the look and feel of your e-books with Stanza. But if you get to the reading part, books are sorted by subject as well as author and title, and you can dig in: A dictionary is two taps away, and you can search within a book for a word or phrase. How wonderful that will be for researchers and students. In addition to all these features, there are more book resources available through Stanza -- there are romance books from Harlequin, O'Reilly tech books, self-published books through Smashwords, bestsellers and new books via BooksonBoard and Fictionwise that cost any variety of prices. And it's also got Project Gutenberg's free books, as well as other free collections from Munseys (pulp fiction and classics) and Random House. Although the books I've looked at on Stanza have these awkward Web-style paragraph breaks, they do better than Eucalyptus in the illustration department. Stanza comes with a free version of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll, and the original illustrations look marvelous.

Amazon has a Kindle for iPhone app (which I've tried), and Barnes & Noble recently launched its iPhone eReader (which I haven't). If I have a choice, I'd rather not read a book through a bookstore's brand -- it'd be like seeing the big red Target logo every time I use my kitchen garbage can. I know where I bought it, but the place of purchase shouldn't be front-and-center every time I go to use it, should it?

One brand I can embrace is the public library, which means I should probably move to Washington, D.C. The district's public library system was the first to launch an iPhone app (in December 2008), and although it doesn't have a fancy design, it's incredibly user-friendly. When you open the app, you have two choices: "search catalog" and "hours & locations," both smart options for a mobile device. Search for "David Baldacci," and a window pops up that tells you it is searching; after about 10 seconds, a series of titles pops up. You not only can see where it is on the shelf, but also can place it on hold at any location. Brilliant!

Not so brilliant is the WorldCat app from the OCLC, a nonprofit computer library service, which mind-blowingly tries to make library catalogs worldwide accessible. Ideally, you'd be able to search for books close to you, but the catalog is so large that searching for an exact title brings up dozens of iterations of the book (some at university libraries, which don't allow public access), so it's hard to simply get what you want. And its interface is so clunky that I tried to look at a book detail and accidentally identified my location as South Pasadena. After 20 minutes of trying to reset my place -- an integral part of finding books in a library close to you -- I was still trapped in South Pasadena. And it seems there I will remain, until they upgrade.

I know I'm only scratching the surface of book apps -- there are thousands. Which do you use? I'll try them out -- just as soon as I'm done reading the Eucalyptus version of Willa Cather's "My Antonia."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: Books photo by butterflysha via Flickr. Inset of Eucalyptus in action by Things Made Out of Other Things.

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