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When It Comes to History, I´m History

March 21, 2011 by Reader's Connection

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn
By which I mean that if we´re becoming a society of e-book readers, I´m going to lag behind in the history department. I´m enjoying two history books, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir, and Walter R. Borneman’s Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America; but they work better for me on paper than they do e-yikes.

My observations are based on the use of a Sony reader. If your reader handles some of these features better than mine does, feel free to leave a comment. If you think I’m not making full use of the  Sony’s resources, please let me know.

Questions: Why are history e-books being published? Are you really reading them? How can you not prefer history on paper?



Please click on these whonky B&W photos to help me make my obvious points.

geneagainYou may be the sort of reader who ignores genealogical charts at the beginnings of books, but authors place them there for a reason, and it’s unfortunate that my Sony screen must shrink Alison Weir’s charts so that only a superhero or a practiced peeping tom–or perhaps you, I’m sorry–can read them without strain. Did Henry VIII really beget himself? I knew the royalty behaved strangely back then.


oooo-001To give them their due, Weir’s family trees aren’t as useless as the maps in Borneman’s book about Polk. A friend here at work has a Kindle, and can flip Borneman’s maps to a landscape setting–and perhaps I can do that with the Sony–but who cares?

If you really want to understand the changes Polk made–we have him to thank for Texas and California and Oregon and more–readable maps are an aid, and Sony’s maps are indecipherable little puddles of e-oil.


Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and AmericaNavigating to these features from the table of contents is pretty easy, but navigation as a whole is perilous on the Sony. If I want to read an endnote in a paper copy, I only need to have a second bookmark back in the notes, so I can flip back and forth.

On the Sony, I can highlight the note number and press the black button, and (sometimes after a struggle) I’ll be taken to the note. But how do I return to the text? I can (A) mentally register my page number, then after reading the note, type in those numbers–but page numbers often run for a few Sony pages, so I have to fumble my way back to my starting point; or (B) I can bookmark my page, go to the note, then hit the little home button, select Books by Title, select whichever book I’m reading, select Bookmarks, and select the particular bookmark.

I’m not being facetious when I ask if I’m doing this as sensibly as it can be done. Under these conditions, I would ignore Weir’s footnotes, which are almost always just citations; but Borneman’s footnotes are sometimes more informative, and there are  authors who turn endnotes into books of their own.

As for illustrations .  . . where are they? When writing about Polk’s future wife, Walter Borneman is cruel when he writes, “Was Sarah Childress beautiful? Look at the portrait and judge for yourself.” Oh, Walter, Walter, I would if I could! Illustrations aren’t included in Borneman’s table of contents, and Weir lists them but there’s no way to link to them.


In both of these e-books, as it turns out, the illustrations are plopped in the middle of the book, exactly where they are in the paper copy. But if you aren’t going neurotically back and forth between paper and e-yikes the way I am, I don’t know how you’re supposed to locate Sarah’s portrait . . . or how you’re supposed to identify her when you’ve found her, since the microscopic print can’t be enlarged.

Hope to DieAgain, I’m enjoying both books. Borneman is a bit of a cheerleader for Polk–who may be regarded by some cynics as a war-mongering land-grabber–while Weir doesn’t go beyond sympathy for Boleyn. So in that respect she’s my pick. But I’m even more ignorant about Polk and his era than I am about Boleyn and hers, so each author’s work is worth my time.

And I’m not at war with e-books in general. In an earlier post about e-reading, I waxed poetic (or just got waxy) and said “Reading Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels on a Sony Reader is like skating on gray ice beneath which horrible, frightening news keeps floating to the surface as I zoom along. ” I was quite enthusiastic.

But e-history? I’m still puzzled as to why anyone manufactures these things.

1 comment »

  1. Margo says:

    I’ve been thinking about getting an e-reader, but haven’t decided which platform. Kindle may be the best, but it doesn’t support library downloads. History books are often heavy hardbacks that don’t easily fit in a purse. That’s why I would want to read a history book on an e-reader. I look forward to reading other comments on this subject.

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