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Digital Jane: Jane Austen E-books online

In Jane Austen’s day, books were sold in a rather humble state. The pages were removed from the printing press, folded, sewn, and bound in plain paper-covered cardboard, the folds uncut. The owner could then take this embryonic volume and have it bound to suit his own taste and pocketbook: anything from a modest cloth covering to handsome tooled leather and gilt edges. Mr. Darcy had more to do to maintain the family library at Pemberley than simply place an order with a bookseller.

Modern readers also have variety in our volumes. We are all familiar with hardback books, as well as the larger trade paperback and smaller mass-market paperback books. Now we have yet another selection: electronic books, or e-books, books in electronic format that can be viewed on a computer screen or a handheld device.

The most popular format for e-books is Adobe Acrobat, which have the document extension .pdf (which stands for Portable Document Format). The software to read such documents, called Adobe Acrobat Reader, can be downloaded for free at the Adobe site. The software is popular because it is compatible with Windows, Macintosh, or Unix-based operating systems. There is even a version for the Palm operating system, allowing many users to read .pdf documents on their handheld devices.

Microsoft Reader is a proprietary e-book format and the reader is also free to download. You must register for the Microsoft Passport to activate the reader. Microsoft Reader is only available for computers that run Windows 98 or the newer Windows operating systems. There is also a version available for the Pocket PC. Many of the large, well-known book publishing companies are choosing Microsoft Reader format for publishing their e-books. A strong encryption system prevents piracy, and the system was created specifically for reading e-books, not adapted to it as was Adobe Acrobat. The documents produced for the format can be made very attractive and easy to read on computer screens.

For those of us who read on the go, portability is paramount. The Franklin eBookman is a handheld device about the same size as a personal digital assistant (PDA), available in several models. The eBookman also performs some of the functions of a PDA, and can play MP3 music files as well, including audiobooks from Audible.com.

The Gemstar eBook uses a proprietary format that is only readable by their devices, which are quite expensive, though the technology is top-notch. They offer a reader that is the same size as a hardback book, which is probably the easiest to read among the handheld devices, though it costs almost as much as a full computer. A browse through their bookstore indicates that many of the featured e-books are quite expensive to download; indeed, they cost almost as much as a hardback book. Jane Austen’s novels are all available at about the same price as a mass-market paperback.

If you have a PDA using the Palm Operating System, you can download a free reader, creatively called the Palm Reader, from the Palm website (it comes installed on most new Palm PDA models). It is also available in versions for Windows, Macintosh, and Pocket PC, which means your e-books are not limited to a single hardware platform. All of Jane Austen’s books are available from Palm Digital Media. Adobe Reader offers a device for the Palm OS as well.

Mobipocket, a cross-platform format that can be used for several handheld devices, offers a download called Mobi pocket Publisher that allows users to take ASCII plain text or HTML documents and convert them into Mobipocket format, which can be used on Palm OS devices, Franklin eBookman, Pocket PC, and several other handheld devices.

So what does all this have to do with Janeites? Aren’t we an old-fashioned lot, who prefer our books produced the way Gutenberg made them, rather than in bits and bytes? For the most part, that is true; however, the advent of the electronic books increases the availability for otherwise hard-to-find Jane Austen-related books, and makes them more portable as well.

All of Jane Austen’s books are readily available in various e-book formats. The University of Virginia Electronic Text Center offers all six novels for free, in Microsoft Reader and Aportis for the Palm OS formats. They can also be purchased inexpensively from eBookMall in two parts: Volume I and Volume II in just about any format you could desire, listed in an easy to read comparison chart.

Plain text versions of the novels are available for download at Project Gutenberg. They certainly aren’t the prettiest versions, but can be used on every computer, and are completely free. If you have the time and knowledge, you can mark up the documents for conversion to Adobe Reader or Mobipocket format.

Elibron offers several of Jane Austen’s books in Adobe Acrobat format (.pdf extension) for Windows, Palm, and Pocket PC. Most of the downloads are free. A download of Go ldwin Smith’s Life of Jane Austen, an 1890 biography of Jane, is available for download for $1.95, and in a more expensive paperback edition as well.

The first biography of Jane Austen, A Memoir of Jane Austen, written by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh, has been transcribed and is available both as an e-text (readable on the web) and as a download, either in plain text or HTML, which can be converted to several e-book formats. The webmaster has kindly allowed free download of this book, which laid the foundation for much future Jane Austen-related scholarship.

The only other Jane Austen biography we could find in e-book format was unfortunately the John Halperin bio, which we cannot recommend.

We found several pastiches of Jane Austen’s novels in e-book format. Pemberley Shades by D.A. Bonavia-Hunt, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that has delighted Jane Austen’s fans for decades, can be downloaded for free in Adobe Acrobat format (be sure to download the file with the extension .pdf). One of the newest sequels to Pride and Prejudice, Excessively Diverted by Juliette Shapiro, is available in e-book format as well, conveniently delivered to your e-mail inbox, a plus for those surfing the net on a slower dialup connection. The book is also available in paperback format from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk or direct from the publisher.

A story on Fictionwise called “Cause and Consequence” by Mary Soon Lee is available in Microsoft Reader format. It is not a novel, but a short story, a time-travel version of the Austen family legend regarding Jane’s Mysterious Suitor by the Sea.

With the crash of the dot-com boom, many pundits have pronounced the e-book dead, but the continued existence and growth of both software and hardware choices–as well as increasing availability of titles–belies the common wisdom. As more public domain titles become available, Jane Austen scholars may make them freely available in electronic format for the enjoyment of all. Never let it be said that Jane Austen fans are slow to embrace technology. Jane’s work and her spirit are alive and well, and her work preserved forever in digital form.

Some more useful links about electronic books:
Amazon E-Book FAQ

Aportis cross-platform software download, Palm OS or Windows OS handhelds.

Margaret C. Sullivan is the webmistress of Tilneys and Trap-doors and likes to imagine that if Jane were writing today, she would compose on a cunning little notebook computer that could be whisked away when she was interrupted by visitors.