The one where I spun up a virtual machine to deDRM my ebooks.

The area where I didn’t expect I would have to uncloud is books, but behold, it is happening.

My kids addicted to books. They read all the time. They read in the car, they read in the evenings, they read when they read just out of sheer boredom. I get many jealous looks during the meetings of the secret society of parents.

The flipside of this though, like with all things 2021, is over-digitisation, if such a word exists: like with their school related screen time, most of their reading is on an ebook reader.

We have 2 Kobo devices, which are supposed to be the “family ebook readers”, but are almost exclusively used by the kids. I actually still have my old Barnes&Noble nook Simple Touch, which was (I think) the first (quirky) touchscreen eink reader, rocking Android 2.1, and which I love and still use1, although it doesn’t connect to the internet anymore, plus it’s not a Kobo so there is another “2021” problem reading the typically DRM’ed books that I bought via Kobo (or, Kobo’s NL shield company)… but more on this too, below.

Reading Ben Rhodes’ 2021 book (After the Fall) on my 2011 nook

This, like all screen related things, has led to degradation of attention. Switching back and forth between books, skimming them, but not reading them. To their discredit, Kobo (and I’m guessing, other ebook companies) is no help here: the homescreen of these devices is not very dissimilar from that of an engagement driven web portal, full of calls-to-action to get more Kobo Plus stuff, browse your library, organise your library, reorganise your library, read this, read that… Instead of displaying one big-ass widget with your current read.

While I ultimately believe ebooks are a great improvement to civilisation (and forests), I have to agree with the more luddite voices (=my wife) that to kids’ attention span, this is a disaster. A better disaster than, say, YouTube, but fits that pattern. So we wanted to change this.

Our current idea (and we’ll iterate from here) is ebook readers should have exactly one book at any given time. This reduces the distractions of having many books open at the same time. It still does not reduce the distractions of having all the ads for the value added service, previews of random promoted books etc. But it would be a good start.

With Kobo, you can not simply do this. The solution is a combination of emptying the ebook and unclouding the ebook library.

Using the ebook reader with only one book at a time is not as valid a user journey as I thought, as Kobo won’t let me use the reader without a Kobo account.2

If you have a Kobo/ account (I do), and you buy books (I did), they will all sync to your ebook reader. No selection possible, all the discipline has to be on client side. I had to create a secondary, Kobo account that doesn’t have any books purchased, and use that for the readers. This means of course that eveything I purchased on the primary account is suddenly out of reach.

Enter Calibre, the awesome piece of free software to handle everything ebook. With a combination of Calibre3, and the DeDRM/obok_DeDRM plugin, I synced all books from my main Kobo account to my Calibre library (DeDRM-ing them in the process), from where I can manually load back the books my kids read, to the ebook reader — one at a time. This, incidentally, also solved the accessibility problem I’ve had with my old nook device.

The odd problem this creates of course is how I purchase new books. As I will continue buying new books on my main Kobo account, and as deDRM-ing requires the actual Kobo device with the books as a source, I will probably either go through logging over to the main account on one of the Kobo readers, syncing/deDRM-ing, then signing out again… or buy a third Kobo device just to do this. But that’s a bridge I’ll cross when I get there.

So there, one more aspect of our lives out of the cloud (partially) — one not out of principle, but on necessity.

1: Ebook readers are the most long lasting electronics these days, don’t you think? Would you be able to use a 10+ year old laptop? Amazing how even the battery held up all these years in my nook.

2: I realise I’m rejected my rights as a consumer in this industry. You bought a book, how wonderful! But you can only read it on our devices. Fuck portability. You bought an ebook reader because you want to read ebooks, how lovely! But you’ll need an account with our service to do so. You clearly have to go through hoops to read the books you bought on the devices you bought in certain use cases. Apart from 1lib you are really shit out of luck trying to get non-DRM ebooks. Cory Doctorow was (obviously) right.

3: Calibre needs at least version 5 for deDRM to work. The version of Linux Mint on my laptop has v3.21. Calibre’s official page also states:

Please do not use your distribution provided calibre package, as those are often buggy/outdated. Instead use the Binary install described below.

Downloading the Calibre installer of course is a trivial thing, but me preferring only “vanilla” packages on my workhorse laptop I actually ended up spinning up a virtual machine just to have the official (but not officially packaged) version. Using the packaged version is more than sufficient for day-to-day catalogue management and device sync.

Footnote to the footnote: I actually ended up spinning up a vm of Elementary Linux which I grew to love so much that now I’m seriously considering switching over… but that’s another story.

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