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Hunting in a virtual bookshelf

Any fan of technical books is familiar with O'Reilly, publishers of the best books on computer technology. You know, the books with the cute animals on the cover. I don't know what the deal with O'Reilly and animals is, but they have created a service to let you hunt them down... in a virtual way. Of course, they had to call it Safari. He.

Safari is a virtual bookshelf. It allows you to select books and read them online. The books come from many premier technical/computer publishers, not just from O'Reilly. There are books by Sun, Addison-Wesley, Peachpit Press, Prentice Hall, Que, Adobe Press, Sams, Macromedia Press, Cisco Press, and Microsoft Press among others. The variety of publishers guarantees that you will find a book on a topic with any experience level you need. There are more than 1000 books in Safari.

Safari's Home Page

The way the bookshelf works is very simple. You buy a certain number of slots, pay a monthly or yearly fee and start filling the slots with books. You can get a Starter bookshelf with 5 slots for $9.99 per month ($109.99 per year), a Small bookshelf with 10 slots for $14.99 per month ($159.99 per year), a Medium bookshelf with 20 slots for $24.99 per month ($269.99 per year), or a Large bookshelf with 30 slots for $29.99 per month ($329.99 per year). Most books fill one slot, but there are some (such as the Pocket References/Guides) that fill only half a slot, and some that fill up to three slots. Each book you put in a slot has to be there for at least a month before you can replace it. O'Reilly offers a free trial period of 14 days.

You can browse books by subject and category, search for them (more about search later) and read parts in preview mode, before deciding to put them on a shelf. O'Reilly is constantly adding new books, so you better leave some emergency slots open just in case a "must read now" book appears. You can read books on screen, print parts of them or buy a print version. More interestingly, you can perform searches on the books you own and browse their Tables of Contents and Indexes. The disadvantages of reading on screen are well known: lack of transportability, it is tiring, etc. The advantage is that the books are transformed into web pages with links. I mean, what is easier: To go to the index of a hard copy, find term like Perl, and, then, look through the pages that the index indicates, or, simply, to click on the word Perl, as a bookmark, to be transported to the referenced page?

A page from a book

I know you are now trying to calculate how many books can you read in a month, but, you'll find out, this calculation is useless. First of all you will quickly find yourself putting books in your shelf with the intention of never removing them. Reference works are like that. Second, the search feature will tempt you to put books in your shelf, even if you already own the print version. Most people will outgrow the 5 slot bookshelf very quickly. And I bet some of us will find the 30 slot too confining...

As I have tried to make clear, Safari puts forward the advantage of having books on the web. The other clear advantage is its price. With a ten-book shelf you can have access to as much as 120 books in a year for the price of 6 books or so. The selection of books is very complete, with highlighted sections on all the current buzzwords like Perl, Java, Python, Web, Web Dev, XML, Linux, Unix, Mac/OS X, .NET, etc.While those are highlighted, you can find several books in any important topic. There are also convenient features such as lists of most read books or recent additions to the service.

The search feature in Safari is very good, both to find books and to search within books. You can perform advanced searches and you will need to do so. With so many books, most searches produce hundreds of results and eliminating the incidental results will require some thought on your part. Finding a particular book is very easy, as you can search by title or even by ISBN number. I put the search feature through a torture test while researching this review and was very satisfied by the results. My only advice is to search first by book rather than section, as the section results are multiplied by the number of times the search string appears in the book. While reading books you also have the convenience of annotating and bookmarking, making it easy to return to interesting parts and remind you of what you found so interesting. You can also search within your bookshelf or in a particular book.

My Safari is the place to go for bookmarks, recent pages, and all your personal links...

As good as Safari is, it isn't perfect. There is no way to know if a new book has been included in a particular subject or to mark an upcoming book so that you get a notice when it is added to Safari. But the biggest issue I have with it is the lack of reader reviews. It seem to me that it would be easy to add reader reviews of each book a la Amazon and that this would be very helpful for selecting books for your bookshelf. Reviewers could rank each book, and reviewers themselves could be ranked by how many people agree with them. This is a minor complaint about this excellent service. Another nitpicking issue is that sometimes two editions of the same book are both in Safari. Finding the later edition after putting the previous one in your bookshelf may make you want to kick your (non virtual) self. Books take longer to appear in Safari than in print. Hopefully this will change in the future, as it should be the other way around, shouldn't it?

While Safari will not save you from spending a fortune in computer books, it may actually make you spend more as you get familiar with new books easily, I think it is a very convenient way to access the huge literature of computer books. Even if you have a University library or a big bookstore nearby, you'll find Safari's accessibility and sheer number of books very convenient. Now, I only need universal wireless Internet to make me really happy...

© Copyleft 2006 Alfredo Octavio.
Last update: 1/19/06; 3:39:22 PM.

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