Long before Lawrence of Arabia the movie — and before T.E. Lawrence himself — there was Charles Montagu Doughty (1843-1926), a most intrepid Englishman who ventured where only Arabs had dared to tread. Doughty’s most celebrated book is the epic Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888). The book fell into obscurity; Lawrence rediscovered it in the 1920’s and it has become accepted as a classic of the travel literature.
I am reading Travels now, and find that it lives up to its reputation … it is a beautifully written account of a daring journey. Today I sat in a coffee house, savoring the adventures and the prose, as I read Travels on my Nook Touch e-reader.
But … getting to that point was not an easy process.
To make rabbit stew, the first thing you have to do is catch the rabbit. To read a book, the first thing you have to do is … be aware that the book exists. I probably came across references to the Doughty before, but what gave me a recent push was a passage from another book I’m reading, William Gaddis’ The Recognitions:
At other times he [Wyatt] was feverishly awake, and the books stacked round him could not hold his exhausted attention. Their titles ran from Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta to A Coptic Treatise Contained in the Codex Brucianus, the Rosarium Philosophorum, two books of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Wyer’s De Prœstigiif Dœmonum, Llorente’s Inquisition d’Espagne, …
These were books selected by Father Gwyon — widely-read way beyond the bounds of Christian orthodoxy — for his son to read. I was intrigued to see the Doughty called out in such illustrious (or at least impressive-sounding) company …
Where do you look for a public-domain classic? (A digital copy, mind you! I will only read a bricks-and-mortar book in the most dire of emergencies.) Project Gutenberg is the natural place to start. But the book, rather oddly, is not there. The Online Books Page points to Google Books as having at least Volume I of this mammoth work. I excitedly downloaded their ePub version, but was doused with cold water when I saw how corrupt the text was. I should have remembered that unlike the Gutenberg books, which are meticulously proofread, the Google ones appear to be thrown at the public just the way they come from the OCR (optical character recognition) process. Here’s the beginning of the scanned, OCR’ed, ePub version of Chapter 1, preceded by three lines of the chapter summary:
I now realized that I would have to make do with the actual Google scan … a PDF file. Anyone experienced with e-books will tell you that PDF’s are a pain in the you-know-where to read on an e-reader. But I made it work, though it wasn’t easy. To begin with, I have a Nook Touch e-reader that I have customized (OK, well, er, “rooted”; see these links for more information). On it, I installed ezPDF Reader, which has very useful options such as “Landscape” format, and Zooming the text to any size desired.
(And yes, I know that reading a PDF file is easier on a tablet — iPad, Android, or what have you — with the normal LCD color display. But, such a device just lacks the coziness and book-like quality of the e-paper and e-ink found on a dedicated e-reader. Not to mention lacking the long battery life and read-in-the-sun ability.)
I then had to massage the PDF file itself. (The following steps require a PC sporting the full-fledged Adobe Acrobat program; Adobe Reader alone will not cut it.) I was having a lot of trouble accessing the PDF on my Nook until I created a new PDF version, incorporating OCR text recognition. Weirdly enough, this helped ezPDF Reader open the original scanned file properly; it also had the distinct advantage of allowing one to copy-and-paste memorable snippets of the text into another file. I then cut off a 50-page chunk so that my Nook would not be struggling with a mammoth file. (Later, I realized that I could vastly reduce the size of the PDF file by saving it as “optimized”, so perhaps cutting off that chunk was not necessary.)
Here followeth a snippet of the PDF file, in all its original — if messy — 1888 glory. (The smear at the left helps explain why there were so many mistakes in Google’s OCR process.)
Was it all worth it? Heck, I’m now set up for many hours of latte-sipping at my coffee house, while I’m jouncing around on that camel and experiencing wonders all around me. Here’s one delight I just came across today: You probably know the Biblical phrase “balm in Gilead”? Here is Doughty’s actual observation of the land called Gilead:
Westward towards Jordan lies Gilead, a land of noble aspect in these bald countries. How fresh to the sight and sweet to even- sense are those woodland limestone hills, full of the balmsmelling pines and the tree-laurel sounding with the sobbing sweetness and the amorous wings of doves! in all paths are blissful fountains; the valley heads flow down healing to the eyes with veins of purest water.