E-Book Enlightenment

Reading And Leading With One Laptop Per Child


"The Readers are the Leaders"

  The Author's Mother

George Pal's movie The Time Machine has spoken to me ever since I saw it at the local YMCA as a child.  In it Rod Taylor the Time Traveller travels hundreds of thousands of years into the future to discover that humanity has split into two branches: the beautiful, passive Eloi, and the repulsive, cannibalistic Morlocks who live underground and use the Eloi as cattle.  It is strongly implied that the Eloi achieved their degraded state because they neglected reading and did not take care of their books.  At the end of the movie the Time Traveller returns to the Eloi with a gift that he will use to help them regain their humanity: three books.   We are not told which ones.

If this vision of the future is less likely now than it seemed to me when I first saw the film, much of the credit is due to volunteers that are working to preserve books in the public domain in electronic form, and others creating new works with Creative Commons licenses that allow free distribution.

Of course having books in electronic format would be of no use if there was no way to read them.  In The Time Machine the Eloi had magic talking rings that would tell them stories when they were spun on a special table.  Like much of today's technology it gave a great demo but was closed, proprietary, and ultimately impractical.  Today we have something better than magic talking rings: low cost computers from the One Laptop Per Child project running the Sugar operating environment.  If the Time Traveller had chosen not to help the Eloi regain their humanity but to prevent them from losing it in the first place I am convinced he could do no better than to become involved in this project.1 

When I proposed writing this book specifically about creating and using e-books with Sugar several people suggested that I would do better to write a general book on e-books and only mention Sugar as one e-book reading platform among many.  They had a reasonable point.  Much of the material in this book will be of interest to those with Kindles, Nooks, iPads, cheap tablets running Android, and any other kind of computer that can read an e-book.  However, I make no apology for focusing attention on the Sugar platform.  It is in my opinion poised to become the best available e-book reading platform.  Significantly, it is an outstanding platform for free e-books.

If your knowledge of e-books comes from products like the Kindle, the Nook, or even the iPad you could be forgiven for thinking that e-books don't have much to offer.  For instance, you may have thought that e-books would be less expensive than regular books, only to find out that publishers want almost as much money for a current e-book as they do for a hardbound book, and unlike a normal book an e-book cannot be loaned out or resold. 2 

You may have heard that Amazon already sells more Kindle books than it does bound and printed books.  As revolutionary as that is, there is a second e-book revolution in progress, with e-books that are in the public domain or that are licensed for free downloading, and Sugar can be a big part of that revolution. Consider the following:

  • There are over about two million free e-books available, including some of the best ever written.
  • Anyone can easily make his own e-book and publish it.
  • If you have a bound and printed book and a digital camera, you can make an e-book from that book.  If the book is in the public domain you can even publish it.
  • If you don't have any books to convert to e-books you can volunteer to proofread other people's e-books on the Distributed Proofreaders website.
  • With web-based tools like Booki you can collaborate on writing a book with people you've never met in person.  The book can be published as a website, in e-book format, or even sent to a print-on-demand service to create bound and printed copies.
  • A new standard, OPDS, makes it possible to create electronic catalogs of e-books.  Many such catalogs are already in existence, and you can set up a catalog like that for your own e-book collection.
  • There are applications for Sugar and the XO laptop to search catalogs of free e-books and download them to your computer.
  • The reading activities for Sugar support every important e-book format, and have features that go beyond what products like the Kindle support.
  • You don't need an XO laptop to run Sugar.  With Sugar on a Stick you can install Sugar on a bootable USB thumb drive and take it and your e-book library wherever you go.  You can use this thumb drive to run Sugar on most PCs and Macs.

Access to free e-books can change how we do education.  If the authors of the History book your school uses give Thomas Jefferson less credit than he deserves, or praise Thomas Paine's Common Sense but neglect to mention his controversial later writings you can easily find material to remedy this deficiency.  Are you putting  on a school play?  There are many you could put on without paying royalties, free to download.  Do you teach French?  Project Gutenberg has the works of French authors in their original language.   Do you have dyslexic students?  The e-book reader for Project Gutenberg texts can read texts aloud with the word being spoken highlighted.  The Internet Archive has free sheet music, as well as illustrated books on drawing for art classes.

If the only source of information on the Internet your students know about is Wikipedia, this book will help you fix that.

The benefits of free e-books can become even greater when you learn to make them yourself.  Indeed, the invention of the e-book changes forever what it means to be a publisher.  Our descendants will not have to make do with three well chosen volumes.  Instead, they will have access to millions!


E-Books On The XO Laptop

The design of the XO laptop shows the importance the project gives to e-book reading.  The XO has a screen that can swivel 180 degrees to turn the laptop into a tablet, and the screen orientation can be rotated to display a full page of text.  With the back light turned off the student can even read his e-books by sunlight.

Here is the XO laptop with the screen folded into the tablet orientation for reading e-books:


The Purpose of This Book

As I was writing this book I realized time and again that I was not just writing about something that is, but something that is in the process of becoming.  For instance, there are millions of free e-books available, but more children's books, recent books, and books in languages other than English are needed.  There are Activities for Sugar that make it very easy to find and download e-books, but not every available e-book can be had that way yet.  The Sugar platform offers excellent Activities for reading and sharing e-books, but it can still be improved.  There is excellent software under development for publishing your own e-books, and there is excellent software being developed for collaborating on the web to create e-books.  If you're the kind of person who likes to get in on the ground floor, you'll find this book a guide to where you can do so.

If you're the kind of person who has to make the best of what's available, this book is for you too.

This book is about using Sugar, the XO laptop and free e-books to their full potential.  It will describe the strengths and weaknesses of the different e-book formats, where to find free e-books, the Activities available for reading them and their features and functions, and finally how to create and publish your own free e-books.

The contributors to this book have extensive experience working with e-books.  The main author wrote several Activities for finding and reading e-books on the XO.  For this book he designed and built his own book scanner, created e-books from several hardbound books, donated books to the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, and Project Gutenberg Canada.  He has published several books on the Kindle Store, and has created some of the software described in this book.  The other contributors are involved with the Rural Design Collective, an organization that has done work for the Internet Archive, including a method of distributing the Children's Book Collection to computers that cannot connect to the Internet.

Formats For This Book

This book is available in several formats:

The first is as a website at http://en.flossmanuals.net/.  The world of e-books and children's education does not stand still, so this book will be updated from time to time.  The website will contain the latest version of the book, because the website was used to write the book.

Versions in Full Color PDF, EPUB, and Kindle MOBI format may be downloaded for free from the Internet Archive at http://archive.org

The very same Kindle file may be purchased from the Amazon Kindle Store.  The price will be the lowest that Amazon allows.  The advantage of buying the book from Amazon versus downloading it from the Internet Archive will be convenience.

The Rural Design Collective produced a really beautiful bound and printed version of this book as a summer project.  Fifty copies were made, and they featured front and back cover art by Oceana Rain Fields (who also did the art at the top of each chapter in the website). 

There are no immediate plans to publish more of these, but if you want to see what you missed you can check out


The very best way to read this book is in EPUB format from the Internet Archive, using the Read program on an XO laptop.  It just doesn't get better than that!

  1. Given the choice between helping Weena regain her humanity and volunteering to help OLPC many of us would have made the same choice George did.^
  2. Actually, the publishers of e-books, not Amazon, are the source of this problem. Amazon allows publishers to set prices and also allows them to restrict how their e-books may be used. Amazon is perfectly willing to publish low priced e-books with no restrictions, and has thousands like that available. It is established authors and publishers that want these restrictions, and Amazon offers them to get best sellers on their platform.^