Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Eucalyptus, revisited

Jerry Stratton, July 12, 2009

Eucalyptus book list

I have a long moratorium on purchasing hardcovers. I can’t carry hardcovers with me, so they take forever to read. Paperbacks, however, I can put in my bag and read whenever I have a few minutes extra. However, I only carry one at a time, and even some paperbacks nowadays are huge. Even in the mass market paperback version, I had to leave the final book of Stephen King’s Dark Tower home if I needed to carry anything else in my bag. And what happens when I’m finished with a book? Then I carry a temporarily-useless book around until the end of the day.

So the idea of e-readers appeals to me. But the reality of them hasn’t. They’ve either been expensive, bulky, fragile, or tied to proprietary formats—or all of those at once.

When I saw the video of Eucalyptus at the Eucalyptus web site, I was amazed. Eucalyptus looked more readable and more usable than any other e-reader I’ve seen. It pulls from Project Gutenberg’s huge library of great books. And because it works on the portable computer I already have—the iPod Touch—it was very inexpensive. I bought Eucalyptus as soon as it passed Apple’s increasingly dysfunctional approval process1.

I’m using it on my first generation iPod Touch. Since purchasing it, I’ve read Samuel Butler’s Erewhon Revisited, Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow, and Machiavelli’s The Prince; and I’m currently re-reading The Three Musketeers. Eucalyptus has let me replace the paperback with my Touch. It is easy to read, comfortable to read for long periods, and more compact even than a paperback.

As a replacement for the paperback, Eucalyptus is just about perfect. I’m very satisfied with this purchase, and am happily queueing up a shelf-load of books from Project Gutenberg that I have never gotten around to reading, including two in my “to-be-read” pile. As long as I know the name and the title, I can easily find any book I want from the Gutenberg site. (They advertise it as “20,000 books to go”.) My “to be read” pile now weighs no more than my iPod, no matter how many books I put in it.

Startup screen for Eucalyptus

Page turning is a flick of the finger away, or you can use a slider to quickly switch to a known page or chapter. The text is beautifully rendered; it’s easier to read than some books I’ve owned. And font size can be expanded or shrunk with the standard iPhone gestures.

When Eucalyptus starts up, its startup screen displays the last page read from the last session, shaded to make it clear that you can’t do anything yet. This beats Apple’s own Notes app, which shows the last note as its startup screen but doesn’t give any indication that the app is unresponsive.

Battery life seems to be fine. I haven’t used it for more than an hour at a time, but I haven’t had any problem with battery life; I usually recharge my iPod every day or two. (Although as I write this it’s gone three days without charging.) Eucalyptus doesn’t appear to discharge the battery faster than any other application I use, and appears to discharge more slowly than my previous most-used app, Moonlight Mahjong Lite.

While it’s great as a book, as software it’s lacking some important functionality. There are no bookmarks. It remembers where you last were when reading each book, but you can’t bookmark a page to return to later.

It doesn’t support copy and paste yet; but even more than copy and paste I would like highlights. I would like to mark some text for later recall, and be able to scroll through just the highlighted text, and then be able to choose to go back and read the highlighted text in context. When reading these works, especially Butler and Machiavelli, I often want to remember a passage for later. The best I can currently do is take a screenshot of the page and e-mail it to myself. But screenshots don’t remember where they were, and they also can’t be searched. A highlighting feature that lets me highlight passages for later retrieval would be very useful to me (especially I could store an entire book’s highlights in a single e-mail/note, with links back to the text).

Throughout these books I’ve only seen two problems with the formatting. One is with ASCII art, which it formats proportionally like the rest of the text. In Erewon Revisited, Butler provided a diagram of an Erewhonian building; in the Gutenberg version, this diagram is displayed as ASCII art. This is what it should look like:

                +--------------------+
  N            /          a           \
 W+E          /                 b      \------------+
  S          /       G          H       \           |
            |             C             |    N      |
+-----------+---------------------------+-----------+------+
|                  ------------------- I                   |
|                  -------------------                     |
|                  -------------------                     |
|          o'                                o'            |
|                                                          |
|  E |||||||||||||||                 ||||||||||||||||| F   |
|    |||||||||||||||                 |||||||||||||||||     |
|                                                          |
| e  A     o'     B               C          o'    D       | f
|    ---          ---             ---              ---     |
|    ---          ---             ---              ---     |
|    ---          ---             ---              ---     |
|    ---   o'     ---             ---        o'    ---     |
|    ---          ---             ---              ---     |
|    ---          ---             ---              ---     |
|    ---          ---             ---              ---     |
|    ---   o'     ---             ---        o'    ---     |
|                                                          |
|                                                          |
|                                                          |
|          o'                                o'            |
|                                                          |
|                                                          |
| g                                                        |  h
|           o'                               o'            |
+-----------+--------------------------------+-------------+
|           |--------------------------------|             |
|           |-------------M------------------|             |
|    K      |--------------------------------|     L       |
|           |--------------------------------|             |
|           |--------------------------------|             |
|           |                                |             |
+-----------+                                +-------------+

This is how Eucalyptus renders it:

ASCII art in Eucalyptus

That’s the only book I’ve seen ASCII art in so far.

The other problem is that in Machiavelli’s The Prince, it tags the first paragraph of the final chapter as if it were the headline; this makes for a big chapter title in the chapter list, and it centers that paragraph when reading it. That’s a pretty minor problem, and again, I’ve only seen it once.

If you enjoy classics, I strongly recommend Eucalyptus. As a means of browsing and reading from the vast Project Gutenberg library, it is amazing.

  1. The iTunes app store review process is either strained to the breaking point, or just plain crazy. Initially Eucalyptus was held up because someone could use it to download the Kama Sutra—a public domain work easily available through Safari or any other app with built-in Webkit functionality.

    After the predictable uproar, the app was finally accepted. And then, Apple requested that the app not be available to children. Seriously. They requested that Eucalyptus—an e-reader with no content of its own that only downloads 80-year-old books that are publicly available from Safari—be rated 17+. Do they think it’s inappropriate that children read? Like reading is going to cut into their music store purchases or something? What are they thinking?

    And are they planning on marking or rejecting every app that includes Webkit functionality as 17+? What about Twitter apps? People can post anything they want to Twitter, at any time.

    Well, crap. While searching for a rant someone else wrote, I found Tweetie 1.3 Rejected by Apple for Returning “Offensive Language” in Search Results. So I guess they do. For a while, they even tried to cover app store rejections under the NDA. It’s like they knew they were going to make some utterly craptacular rejections.

  1. <- The Mimsy Top Twenty
  2. George Orwell’s incinerator ->