The reason I have recently been reading Edward Lear (blog, yesterday) and various other authors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is that I have acquired a Kindle, Amazon’s e-book reader. There are plenty of out-of-copyright books that can be downloaded for it free of charge, and I have been reading (or re-reading) not only Lear but also Lewis Carroll, Conan Doyle and P.G. Wodehouse.
I have to say that in general I am delighted with my Kindle. Rather than lug kilos of printed books to the West Indies for my visit last month, I was able to carry a sizeable library electronically in this one lightweight device.
For extended reading, I find the Kindle much more comfortable than reading a computer screen. Its screen is not backlit, and does not flicker. You can’t read it in the dark, but you can read it in direct sunlight. The battery lasts for several weeks without recharging.
However… judging by my experience, there are still certain problems with fonts and with non-ASCII characters. Despite the claim that the device, in this third generation, “supports additional fonts and international Unicode characters” (Wikipedia), it seems that ordinary downloaded books can only be displayed in three typefaces: “regular”, which means Rockwell, “condensed”, which is the same thing condensed, or “sans serif”, which is Arial or something similar. No other fonts are available. You can, though, adjust the size, the line spacing and the number of words per line.
(I should say that it is also possible to display pdf files on the Kindle, and they can of course contain an unrestricted range of fonts, characters, and graphics.)
Anyhow, as I read Sherlock Holmes I soon came across things like this:As you can see, the non-ASCII characters é and à are replaced by garbage. (It is not easy to photograph a Kindle page with the digital camera I have available. Flash off, macro mode.)
OK, so that book was a freebie, and we can tolerate the odd glitch in something that is free of charge.
But I also paid good money for other books. One was Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language (which I recommend).
As you would expect in a book about linguistics, Deutscher makes use from time to time of phonetic symbols. Disaster! This is what happens to a humble schwa:and as for exotica such as š and ḫ…The special characters take the form of low-res graphics, of an inappropriate size and font. I resent having such typographical incompetence in a book I have paid good money for, but I suspect the fault lies with the publishers (Random House) rather than with the makers of the Kindle.
It can be done. Here is a fragment of a screenshot from another e-book (a freebie!), coping routinely with the characters ĉ and ŝ.
So wake up, other publishers venturing into e-books!