Posted by on April 11, 2014

A Natural Born Reader

I read. A lot. I read articles on the Internet about FileMaker and Objective-C and Cocoa and PHP. I read artciles about politics and copyright and libertarian ideas. I read books about history and philosophy. I read blogs from people I admire and enjoy. I read books for entertainment, especially science fiction and comic books. I read fictional classics that I’ve heard about my whole life but have never gotten to. I read to my kids, choosing books that I enjoyed and hope they will too. I even read books about reading, wanting to learn to draw as much as possible from the works I spend time on.

Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I’m pretty sure that I’m above average in the amount of reading I perform, and I think this has always been the case for me. I don’t have my “dream house,” but in my imagination its largest room is the library.

Or at least it was before the advent of modern digital books. Now I’m perfectly content to have my library on my hard drive instead of taking up physical space in my house.

Digital Organization

Ironically, apart from books, the data on my computer is fairly organized. Every project I work on is defined to be personal or professional, and when professional, each project is either for myself or a client. So I get project folders found in ~/Projects/pers/pers.finances or ~/Projects/clients/abc.project1. And with Maverck’s addition of tags I find myself starting to use the feature to create groups across folders, so I can find all of the design documents I’ve created, regardless of their folder, because they all have a tag of “design-document”. I can then pull snippets from many of them when creating a one for a new project.

Of course my music organization takes full advantage of the features of iTunes. iTunes is just about the perfect application for organizing audio files. It allows the full editing of the metadata for each file, allowing me to group tracks by a variety of methods.

For example, I’m a big Beatles fan. I still remember when I first heard The White Album. Being in high school in the late 80s did not naturally expose me to the peak of popular music. But then I heard The White Album, and it just about blew me away. This is what music could be like! Fortunately I’m not the only one with an appreciation for the works of the Fab Four. Many later artists created covers of their music or mashups with other music, and every one of them that’s in my iTunes library has “Beatles” in the Grouping field. With that metadata in place, a single smart album can bring me all of the Beatles music, regardless of who performed it.

Another useful smart playlist makes use of metadata in a different way. For me, four stars in iTunes means I like a track and five means I love it, so if it has four or five stars, I definately want to hear it again. But not too soon if I’ve heard it recently. The precise definition is too complicated to cover here, but I have a playlist that includes 50 of my favorite songs (exclusing Christmas music and a few other things), but only if I haven’t heard it in the last 2 months. And it’s only possible because of the metadata that iTunes allows me to manipulate and take advantage of.

iTunes, iPhoto, Contacts, Mail, Finder: All applications published by Apple that make good, and increasingly better, use of metadata to allow me to organize my data in dynamic ways. And most of these allow that organization to be transferred to my iPhone and iPad. How would that look with books.

My Dream (Digital) Library

Picture this: I’m in the middle of reading Homeland, Our Oriental Heritage, The Wind in the Willows, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, A Tale of Two Cities, The Federalist Papers, Augustine’s Confessions, Wizard and Glass, Core Data, A Commentary on the Sixth Edition Unix Operating System, and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (yes, that is my current list). Just given that list, I know that in the near future I’ll be interested in the sequels to a few of them (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, The Life of Greece, The Wolves of the Calla), but I also have others in mind that I want to read soon.

For the books in a series, I’d use the metadata to create a smart playlist of those series. For books I’m currently reading, I could mark their comments to indicate so and similarly for books I plan to read soon. Perhaps I have an ebook that is a commentary or study guide. I could create a smart playlist that includes just the book and its associated support materials.

The point being, there might be 20 or 30 books that I want to have available in smart playlists, many of them belonging to more than one. But the important part is, as I edit the metadata to alter the contents of each playlist, the next time I synchronize my iPad (or even ideally, without me having to do so) that books in those playlists appear on my iOS devices.

Then, as I’m reading on the iPad, where I do 90% of my reading, I can make notes, highlights and even links from one book to another, from a passage in one book to a related passage in another. And these links and notes would also synchronize between my devices.

All of the playlist features I described above was possible when our ebooks had to be controlled by iTunes. It would synchronize those playlists, but they could be created. They could be based on whatever metadata I wished to include, using the comments and grouping fields for personal organization techniques. And, as far as I can see, there’s no technical hurdle for implementing the features I’d like to have that iTunes didn’t provide. So when Apple announced iBooks, I was quite hopeful that it would finally fill in the gaps in ebook features that iTunes didn’t provide.

Then Apple released iBooks for OS X with Mavericks. And my hopes were dashed.

The Dissappointment of iBooks

iBooks, like iTunes, really serves at least two purposes: organizing content and using content. As far as I know, the latter purpose is served adequately by iBooks for OS X, but I wouldn’t know very well as I don’t really use it for reading. But as far as organizing content goes, iBooks is abysmal.

Two features that were available in iTunes that aren’t in iBooks include:

  • The ability to edit metadata. That’s right, iBooks doesn’t include any built-in method for editing a book’s author, subject, or anything.
  • The ability to group books dynamically based on metadata. So even if there were a way to get an ebook’s metadata accurate, it wouldn’t help in the creation of smart playlists, as such things don’t exist in iBooks.

For metadata you’re either stuck with what Apple provides when you buy the book or you’re relegated to a labyrinthe set of steps involving third-party software that, from what I can tell, won’t always work even then.

And organization is limited to manual collections, and then a book can only belong to one collection.

I’ve looked into other applications, such as calibre, which can edit metadata. I’ve seen suggestions for overcoming iBooks’ shortcumings by using calibre to edit the metadata, but I haven’t seen that work reliably. But even if it did, the steps for doing so are so long as to be an enormous time committment.

In an attempt to give Apple some benefit of doubt, I can think of four reasons this might be the case. I don’t consider any of them acceptable, but perhaps one of the following captures their thinking.

  • “We said iBooks would be ready for Mavericks, so it has to go in even if it isn’t what we wanted it to be.”
  • “Users don’t need to edit metadata for their books because we include all of the accurate metadata when they purchase books from our store, and that’s the only place users are going to get their books.”
  • “OS X now has a free ebook reader!”
  • “We can’t add significant features to iBooks for OS X without a significant rewrite of iBooks for iOS, and that’s not possible right now.” (This one is almost justifiable.)

And yet, after all of this, I do remain hopeful. iTunes improved significantly over time, there’s plenty of chatter on the discussion boards about iBooks’ failings. Perhaps version 2 will address them. In the meantime, for the first time in 30 years of using Apple products, I’ve found one I hate.

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