Reading books on the iPad: iBooks

This is the third article in my series exploring reading on the iPad. Here’s part 1, newspapers and part 2, magazines.

I became a reader in the Henry Bemis sense in high school. What started with the Sunday funnies escalated to comic books and eventually “chapter books” as we called them. In high school I read Stephen King’s Thinner and loved every word. It sealed my fate as a reader.

Today my appetite is the same but the venue is changing. Once a novelty, ebooks and ereaders have become inexpensive, easy to use and increasingly popular. Last month, Amazon announced that Kindle ebooks are outselling hard covers by as much as 50%. While the iPad is more of a full-featured computer than a dedicated reader, it certainly competes for your book-buying dollar.

In order to be worthwhile, an exploration of the iPad as a book reader must include the apps from all of the big players. This series will include everything you need to know about using readers from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple and more, as well as my own experiences and thoughts on each. We’ll start with Apple’s iBooks.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad and iBooks app in January, comparisons to the Kindle and Nook reached the boiling point. “It’s a Kindle killer!” the fanboys cried. “The iPad sinks the Nook!” they wailed. They were vocal. They were vehement.

They were wrong.

The Kindle, Nook and iPad are very different devices. Specifically, the Nook and Kindle are dedicated ereaders, for the most part, while the iPad is a computer that happens to have ereader software. Comparisons of the devices is unfair, so I’m going to compare reader apps available for the iPad only. This post isn’t about the Nook or the Kindle. It’s about iBooks.

What is iBooks?

Despite the potentially confusing name, most iPad users understand that iBooks is Apple’s ereader software. You can use it to read and annotate books downloaded from Apple’s iBookstore, which is accessed from within the app itself. Additionally, you can wirelessly synchronize bookmarks and annotations between the iPad, iPod touch and iPhone versions of iBooks to pick up reading where you left off. Finally, you can use iBooks to upload PDFs to your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch. We’ll explore the iBookstore in a bit. First, let’s look at the bookshelf.

Reading and buying: How-to and overviews

Much like Clark Kent and Superman, iBooks has two major roles (minus all of the costume changes): as a reader and as a store. Before we explore the store, let’s look at the experience of reading a book. We’ll do so with the free copy of A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh that’s bundled with the application.

The Bookshelf [1. Tip: Place your finger on the bookshelf, then pull down and hold to reveal the “hidden” Apple logo]

Where do most people store books? Other than atop any convenient flat surface. On a bookshelf, of course. Apple has adopted that motif in iBooks. When the app is launched, you’ll see a beautiful shelf that Apple hopes you’ll fill with iBookstore purchases.

Across the top of the shelf are six buttons:

  1. Store – Tap this to “flip” the bookcase over and access the iBookstore
  2. Books – iBooks has two shelves, actually; one for books and one for PDFs. Use this button to view the shelf of books
  3. PDFs – Likewise, use this button to view the shelf of PDFs
  4. Icon View – The four squares on this button will represent your books and PDFs on the shelf by their cover art
  5. List View – Tap the three lines on this button to replace the bookshelf with a simple list of your books or PDFs
  6. Edit – Enter edit mode to delete books or PDFs you no longer want

By default, the books are listed in the order in which they were downloaded, with the most recent acquisition first. However, you can re-order them. Here’s how.

While in icon view, tap and hold on any book’s cover. You’ll see it slightly increase in size. Once that happens, you can drag it to where you’d like it to say (the other books will “scoot” out of the way). Simply drop it in place.

List view presents several options (above). At the bottom of the screen, you’ll see buttons labeled Bookshelf, Titles, Authors and Categories. Tap each to sort your books by those criteria. For example, tapping Authors sorts your books by author.


Anyone who has read a book will find the iBooks experience rather foreign. First of all, it feels different. You’re holding 1.5 pounds of metal and glass, after all. There’s no “new book smell” (some of you know what I’m talking about). You can’t feel the pages or fold a corner over. Also, the iPad is more fragile than a paperback, so you’ll hesitate before tossing it into a bag or bringing it to the beach as you would a paperback.

None of this is bad, just different. You’ll probably enjoy reading on such a sleek piece of hardware. You feel like a bookish version of George Jetson or Agent 007.

To begin reading a book, simply tap it. It flies towards you as if hurled by a poltergeist and then opens. If you’re opening a book for the first time, you’ll notice a bit of thoughtfulness on Apple’s part. It skips the title page and table of contents and presents you with the very first page of content. You’re free to flip backwards and explore those pages if you like (more on turning pages later), but I appreciate Apple’s decision to skip them for me.

If you have opened a given book before, you’ll return to the last page you viewed.

What you see depends on how you position your iPad. When in portrait orientation, you’ll see one page at a time. While in landscape, you’ll see two. Both positions display several icons. Here’s what they mean.

  1. Library – Tap this at any time to return to the bookshelf
  2. Table of contents – Tap this to jump to the table of contents (more on that later)
  3. Title In the center of each page is the book’s title. It doesn’t do anything, so don’t bother tapping it
  4. Brightness – Tap the brightness icon and a slider appears. Move it from left (darker) to right (brighter) to adjust the brightness of the display
  5. Text options – There are several text options to choose from. You’ll find two size options, six fonts, and a toggle to enable a sepia or black-and-white them
  6. Search – This super-useful function lets you search the entire book for any instance of a word or phrase as well as Google and Wikipedia
  7. Bookmark – Tap to drop a red bookmark on the current page before you close the app
  8. Progress tracker – See how far along you are in a given chapter [2. Tip: Tap and hold on the Progress Tracker to quickly jump to a particular page or chapter]

They can all be dismissed by tapping anywhere on the page. To bring them back, tap again.

If the book you’re reading isn’t mind-numbingly boring, you’ll want to turn pages. iBooks gives you two options. The first one is fancy. To move forward, touch the right-hand side of the page, “swipe” it to the left and enjoy the pretty page flip animation. To go back, swipe from left to right.

Alternatively, you can tap the left-hand side of the page to go back, or tap the right-hand side to go forward [3. Tip: You can fix it so that tapping either side will turn the page forward. To do this, select iBooks in the Settings app. Tap “Tap Left Margin” and select Next Page.]

Notes on notes and highlights

If you typically read with a highlighter or a pen in hand, Apple has you covered. It’s easy to make annotations in iBooks, and you can even wirelessly synchronize them to your other devices, like the iPhone and iPod touch. Here’s how it works.

First, tap and hold over a bit of text. A small menu of options will appear. Namely, Dictionary, Highlight, Note and Search. The Dictionary option pops up a dictionary entry for the selected word, as you probably guessed.

Apple has devised a clever way to add highlights. When you’ve selected a word as described above, you’ll notice its highlighted in blue with a “handle” on each end. To capture the entire sentence or phrase you’d like to highlight, drag each of the handles so that the blue covers the target sentence or phrase. Finally, select Highlight from the options menu. You’ll see the yellow “marker swipe” appear.

Writing a note is just as easy. Again, select the word, sentence or phrase you’d like to annotate. Select Note from the options menu and a pad of “sticky notes” appears. Type your note on it and then tap anywhere outside of the note when you’re done. A smaller version will appear in the margin of that page.

You can easily jump to any highlighted passage or note from the table of contents screen. There you’ll see a button labeled Bookmarks. Tap it to see a list of all the bookmarks you’ve placed, passages you’ve highlighted and notes you’ve written. Tap any one to jump right to it.


I’ve read one book on the iPad and am now on my second. The experience has been mostly positive. For starters, the price is right. Most books are cheaper than their paper counterparts. Second, it’s very nice to have several books with you and ready to go at any time. Carrying 8 books in my bag would be a hassle, but it’s easy to carry the slim iPad.

I’ve found the display to be very legible and bright. Yes, it’s not so great in direct sunlight, as glare and reflections wreak havoc on the glass. But I rarely read outside, so it’s not that big of a deal. Plus, a patch of shade typically solves the problem.

Finally, it’s just fun! The iPad feels futuristic and solid, and using it to read is like something out of a Ray Bradbury novel. The fun factor can’t be denied. Of course, the fun can’t start until you’ve bought a book, so let’s examine the iBookstore.

The iBookstore

Feel the wheels of commerce churn as you enter Apple’s iBookstore, the place where you’ll buy books to read with iBooks. To get there, tap the Store button in the upper left-hand corner of the book shelf. The shelf “flips over” to reveal the store.

Right away you’ll see the rotating banner advertising the books that Apple wants you to notice. Most of these are new entries, best sellers or other features. Below that is the New and Notable section, which highlights recent releases. Some more graphics follow those entries while the final section features books in a rotating category. One week it might be cook books, the next crime novels, and so on.

To examine any book, tap it. A new window pops up with a lot of useful information. You’ll find the book’s cover art, author and title. A brief description is also presented, as well as any reader reviews.

To buy a book, simply tap its price. Then enter your Apple ID and watch as the book rises from the store’s shelf, hovers as the bookcase turns back around and then comes to rest among your collection. A progress bar tracks its download, and the cover will bear a “New” banner until you being reading.

Of course, the iBookstore lets you try before you buy. A free sample is available for every book in the store. When you’ve got a book’s info window open, you’ll see a button labeled “Get Sample.” Tap it to download a brief portion of that book, typically one chapter. When you’ve read it to the end, you’ll be prompted to purchase the rest.

Since the App Store was first introduced, Apple has perfected the impulse purchase. You can whip out an iPhone or an iPod touch and buy an app in seconds. The iBookstore works the same way. It’s very easy to buy a book while sitting in your jammies all cozy at home. Even the convenience of Amazon is eclipsed by the iBookstore’s instant gratification. Within 30 seconds of buying, you’ve begun reading. We’re living in the future!


Here are a couple of tips to help you get the most out of iBooks. First, set up alerts. If you love a certain author, you can receive email updates about anything new s/he has had added to the store. To do this, scroll down to the bottom of the iBookstore and tap “My Alerts.” A new window will appear. Tap “Manage my alerts” to set things how you’d like.

Next, it’s pretty easy to find free books in the iBookstore. First, tap Browse at the bottom of the screen. Next, tap Free for a full list of all the freebies in the store.

There you have it, a thorough look at iBooks, Apple’s electronic bookstore and reader for the iPad. It’s fun and full of the delightful surprises that Apple products so enjoyable. Books are easy to buy, inexpensive and look tremendous on the iPad’s huge display. All in all, a great  way to read books on the iPad.

This is the third article in my series exploring reading on the iPad. Here’s part 1, newspapers and part 2, magazines.

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