Ephemera + Instapaper + E-reader = your own periodical

Scott McLemee, the Intellectual Affairs blogger at Inside Higher Ed, recently shared with readers his method for saving articles he finds online to his e-reader. The idea, as he explains, is to take advantage of your e-reader’s strengths (text display, large storage capacity, and portability) and start hand-crafting your own library. Think beyond the Kindle store or Sony store and explore the world of free books (books in the public domain) through Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive and other repositories of texts made available for free. And once you get the hang of it (and you’ve finished reading the 33,000 books in PG’s archive), then think creatively about those long articles you find online.

I don’t know about you, but if an article is more than 1000 words, I won’t read it online. At least, I won’t read it on a backlit screen. For years, this has meant that I print out longer articles. In his blog post, McLemee shares how he saves those articles to his e-reader.

Pitfalls of a PDF on an e-reader
PDF on a Sony Reader
font at normal size
PDF (enlarged text) on a Sony Reader
font enlarged

The method he proposes works: basically highlight the text you find, copy it to Microsoft Word, clean up any erroneous formatting, and export the Word doc as PDF. At this point you load the PDF onto you e-reader. Just about every e-reader can handle a PDF, so this is a safe method to recommend.  But there are limitations to using PDFs on an e-reader.

E-readers are designed to present text, at their best, in other formats. Amazon’s Kindle uses the azw or mobi format, and the standard for all other e-readers is called epub. These e-reader file formats are more similar to HTML or even XML than PDF in that the font size, margin adjustment, text kerning, and other options are left flexible. This way, whatever e-reader you use can optimize the text for its screen. PDF, on the other hand, is a format designed to lock down as many of those options as possible. The result is that, while I can view a PDF on my e-reader, line breaks and page breaks often appear at weird places in the screen, especially if I try to enlarge the text. If I enlarge the text of an epub file, however, the result is just larger text – the line breaks and page breaks readjust seamlessly to the new font size.

The other limitation of reading PDFs on an e-reader is that (often), you cannot annotate a PDF. My Sony Reader allows me to highlight passages and take notes inside epub documents. So, I can highlight a passage of good writing in a book. I can also double-tap a word to look up its definition. The Kindle handles annotations similarly. But highlighting passages and looking up definitions is not an option with PDFs.

For these reasons, it would be better to take those articles you want to read and load them onto your e-reader in the native file format your e-reader wants. It would also be nice if you could skip the step of copy-and-pasting the text into MS Word, where you then have to clean up the erroneous formatting.

Luckily, there is an easier way.

Set up a free account with Instapaper. Instapaper is a service that stores the articles you want to read. Its beauty is that it strips the advertisements, odd formatting, and images from the article and stores only the text to your account.

On Instapaper’s website, there are download options on the right side of the page (see image below).

If your e-reader is a Kindle, you can link your Instapaper account with your Kindle, and your Kindle can fetch your Instapaper articles wirelessly.

If your e-reader uses epub format, you can download your articles manually as epub files. Or, if you are a Mac user, you can use Ephemera to fetch your articles and load them onto your e-reader automatically.

Using Instapaper, your articles appear on your e-reader in the native file format, allowing you resize fonts, highlight passages, and look up words the same as if the article was a book purchased through the Kindle or Google ebook store.
Add Instapaper articles to ebook readers