For nearly 10 years now, I’ve had an electronic device stuck in my hand. Which was an upgrade, really, as before that there was usually a book there.
But as soon as I picked up a Palm Pilot and found I could read books on it, dozens, hundreds of books I could carry around with me at all times, I’ve never looked back. I was very loyal to Palm’s eReader for as long as it lasted, holding off on upgrading to an Apple device until they had something at least as good. (They did: eReader ported over and I bought an iPod Touch soon after).
But after awhile eReader wasn’t as supported anymore, and more and more books were in ePub format, and I grudgingly, reluctantly began using Stanza by Lexcycle. And I also found Calibre, an amazing ebook management tool that Stanza could seamlessly connect to and download from, and the combination was everything I wanted.
I am not exaggerating when I say that Stanza was the app I used most often on my iPhone. More than the other apps (including the phone itself) combined, and probably multiplied. I read a lot, everywhere, and this made it so very easy. Stanza was designed for readers. Not to be a storefront, not to locked you into any particular format or layout or ebook management program; it was designed to load a book and get the hell out of the way. That’s all I wanted. It connected easily to online catalogs like Gutenberg and Baen, and even let me add my own catalogs from other URLs or my own Calibre library with a minimum of fuss and an absence of wires. I loved it.
I also am not exaggerating when I say that when I upgraded to iOS5 this morning, my displeasure at finding out that Stanza no longer works was epic, loud and very likely offensive in a family setting. Just error after error, no way to open a book, nothing. Imagine a heroin user being told that needles don’t work any more and he’d have to find another way to get the stuff into his veins, and you’d have the general idea.
A quick Google search revealed this was a known problem among beta-testers and that there is very likely no update coming since a) Amazon bought Lexcycle and doesn’t really have any motivation to improve their competing product and b) the developers no longer work for Amazon anyway. I hope I’m wrong and it updates anyway, but now I have to find another ebook reader, and this is going to be tough because I’ve tried them all as they come out and not a single one combines the features I want as elegantly as Stanza, an app that hasn’t had a significant update in two years.
Here’s what I want in my ereader (your mileage, obviously, will vary): Let me add books in a variety of ways, at least one without syncing. Let me connect to my Calibre library, or download from online catalogs. Let me adjust the layout — font, font size, line-height, margins — to my own comfort. Let me lock the orientation. Make it easy for me to find and sort my own books. Display ePubs, and whatever other formats you see fit. That’s pretty much it. But how tough could it be?
Here are my other options:
iBooks. Sorry, a non-starter. The default ebook app that ships with the Apple OS, it displays your books on shelves, connects nicely to the Apple ebook store and makes the books look very pretty. Sadly, none of that is what I want. What it doesn’t do is allow me to reduce that huge page margin I don’t need, turn off right justification if the ebook designer wants it, change line-height, or lock orientation so it’ll stop spinning on the screen as I move around. It won’t go full screen, forcing me to waste reading space on icons, the name of the book, page edges and page numbers. And adding books is either through their store, through iTunes (meaning I have to sync every time) or through email. No. But the books sure do look pretty.
Kindle. Probably the ebook reading app I use almost as much as Stanza, mostly because some books are cheaper or only available in the Kindle store. It’s not bad, although it’s severely limited just because it can’t read any format besides Amazon’s proprietary one and now PDFs. Most of my ebooks — and I have thousands — are not in those formats. I can convert them with Calibre, but it’s slow and not always attractive and many of them are DRMed (which isn’t necessarily a problem, but that adds another step or two). Also: can’t turn off justification, won’t connect to other catalogs, won’t connect to Calibre. The Kindle app will stay on my device, but it’ll never be #1.
Nook. Nah. Can’t add books except by buying them from B&N, adding them through the Nook app or by connecting the device and dropping them into a folder. Won’t connect to Calibre, won’t add through email. And not a lot of customization possible; 5 font sizes but no line-height or margin adjustment. Not bad, but not exciting or convenient enough.
Kobo. I’m a little confused about Kobo. Didn’t it have a lot more options before? Customization isn’t far off from the Nook’s, which isn’t surprising since I believe they use the same code. But I had thought it connected to free catalogs and other sources, and I’m not seeing that now unless I’m just missing it. I know they had to kill their store connection to comply with Apple’s new “we want all your money” rules, but what about the rest?
Bluefire. A lot of regular Stanza readers have moved to Bluefire and I’ll give it a try, but so far it’s been crashing on me. When it doesn’t, it’s slow. Not a good beginning.
MegaReader. A strong contender so far. Displays more or less the way I like, connects to Calibre, connects to free catalogs, and even features a cool heads-up display by turning on your iPhone’s front camera and making the page opaque (customizable) so you can see where you’re going as you read. Of course I read while I walk, don’t you? It’s not perfect — the page doesn’t quite go fullscreen (the iPhone’s status bar is still visible), sorting by author just rearranges the whole list by author rather than giving you a list of authors, which you can then click on to see the books (a big advantage when you tend to carry a few hundred books with you), there’s no way to jump straight to recent books added or read, and it can’t add more than one book at a time from Calibre or do it in the background. But better for me than the rest, so far, and I’ve heard the developer is working on those features.
There are plenty of other readers I dismissed long ago, or haven’t tried yet because I read about problems with them (I2Reader doesn’t look bad but people have reported memory issues with large collections). And all of these ereaders have features Stanza did not. Kobo has a whole social aspect, iBooks lets you move books around on your shelves, others have different ways of adding notes and such.
But Stanza was a book reader’s dream. From the superior way it managed large quantities of books — you could search by book, author, collection, subject, and recently read, with a quick-jump alphabet list on the side to speed things up — to the way you could adjust the brightness by running your finger up the page while you were reading, rather than having to go digging around in settings, to minor tweaks you wouldn’t think of. One example: I like the page-turn effect. It’s not a deal breaker — I didn’t mention it at all in my lists — but it contributes to a pleasant you’re-reading-a-book environment. Several of the ereaders above have it, and I turn it off in almost all of them because it’s awkward or too slow and or too disruptive to my reading. Stanza not only had a smooth page curl effect but you could adjust the time it took. Whatever Stanza lacked it made up for in personal customization and convenience, and that was the part I want.
I’d love to hear suggestions for replacements, or reasons why I’m wrong, or ways to emulate Stanza functionality. And I hope I’m wrong and Stanza gets an update. For one thing I wouldn’t have to reload 300 books on this thing.
R.I.P Stanza. We read a lot of good books together.
(Image from lexcycle.com)