Exploring the Jungle: Going on Safari

Read books? Read a lot of books? I do. My collection of computer-related books numbers over 100 various books, the majority of them purchased in the last 3-4 years. The thirst for knowledge and the quest to allow me to understand and do more on my computers has lead me to spend an insane amount of money on books. Of course, I just like to read in general and my fiction library consists of over 500 books. That's a lot of books.

Of course, one of the drawbacks I've discovered (and never learned from), when dealing with reference books is often I'll buy a book on a topic that looks interesting, or something I fully intend to utilize, and crack the book open only once or twice. With my schedule, I find that the things I have interest in (personally) are continually pushed back. I rarely have time enough to play with the many different things I think would be interesting. As a result, I spend $60 on a book I've looked at a few times, by browsing the interesting chapters while sitting outside drinking a coffee.

Cost effective? Hardly. There is a source of pride in having a collection of books, but from a practical and economic standpoint, it seems kind of silly some days.

For a while now I've meant to look at Safari, an online "library" of sorts. Recently, I had my chance and would like to share a few observations with you. First, I think Safari is fantastic. Anyone like me who either reads a lot of books, purchases a lot of books, or does a lot of research will benefit immensely from a Safari subscription. With a free 14 day trial, what's there to lose? Nothing. The gain? Incredible.

I have what I initially thought would be a modest book shelf. My Safari account lets me have 10 books on my shelf at any given time. There are some caveats to this, however, which I think is smart. A book like Unix Power Tools counts as two books, whereas O'Reilly pocket reference books count as half a book. This works for me, and makes sense. However, with this "modest" book shelf, I've got four books remaining even though I've been on the site for a few weeks. Trust me, it's not for a lack of searching for interesting reading material, but likely due more to the fact that a number of the books I would find interesting, I already own. As new books come out, Safari's value (for me) will increase. Provided I get out of the habit of running out and buying the book.

So what's all involved with Safari? Well, we've already talked about the book shelf. There are different subscription levels, with different costs associated to them. You can have a 5-book bookshelf, 10-book, 20-book, or 30-book. For me, a 10-book book shelf is plenty.

Safari also makes it easy to find the books that interest you. You have a constant sidebar (of course, it can be hidden) that indicates the various types of books available: Security, Operating Systems, Networking, Multimedia, and so forth. Each category can further be expanded to a sub-category. For instance, if you click on Operating Systems, you'll get a list of operating systems: Windows, Linux, FreeBSD, Mac OS, etc. Some of these can even be further expanded; clicking on Linux presents another sublist containing categories such as Security, Samba, Administration, Certification, and so on. Using this hierarchy, you can quickly find topics that interest you.

Searching is also a snap. In the basic search, if you entered the word "exim" (for instance if you were interested in books that discussed the Exim MTA), a list of books that mention the word "exim" show up. This list makes it easy to identify the books that mention Exim in passing versus the ones with detailed information on Exim. You will see a relevance column that indicates how relevant that book is to your search words. For instance, the book Exim: The Mail Transfer Agent is top of the list with a relevance of three stars. The book Postfix, which mentions Exim, has a relevance of one star. Obviously, if you wanted to read about Exim, the Postfix book wouldn't be the right one to read.

Another column is the "Most Relevant Sections" which indicates the sections of the book that include your keywords. Click on any of those relevant sections and you will be taken to a preview of that section of the book, usually the first paragraph or two. That may give you an idea of whether or not that book is what you really are looking for. If you want to see what else that particular book may cover, click on the Table of Contents link and you'll see exactly what the book contains. From the Table of Contents, you can see a preview of every section in the book.

If you're a programmer and looking for real-world examples of a certain function, you can use the search function and tell it to look in code snippets from the book by checking the "Code Fragments only" checkbox. For instance, doing a search for the string "array_unique" returned eight PHP books that actually use this function in a code snippet. Again, from here you can view the relevancy of a book and preview the relevant sections. A great time-saver if you're struggling with a piece of code, know what function you want to use, but perhaps don't know the optimal way of utilizing it.

Management of your Safari account is nice as well. Safari remembers your last searches and you can view them by clicking on the "My Recent Searches" tab. It lists the search words you used and the date you used them. You can also view what pages you looked at recently by clicking on the "My Recent Pages" tab.

Ever put stickies on certain pages of books that had special interest to you? I have. It's a great way of bookmarking an interesting page or chapter. I've often used a highlighter to highlight certain sections of a book as well. While you can't use a highlighter with Safari, you can place a "sticky note" on a section by adding a note to the book. These can later be viewed in the "My Notes" tab. There are two types of notes you can place on a book: Private and Public. A private note shows up for you alone, whereas a public note would show up for other users viewing that section of that particular book. I haven't really had much of a chance to explore the notes capabilities of Safari because no one has seen fit to put public notes on any books in my bookshelf, however I can see a distinct collaborative effort here between readers. This would allow readers to put their thoughts on a certain section of a book, perhaps adding corrections or expanding on certain ideas that may be of benefit to other users. I suspect that once Safari has been established for some time and users start including notes on books that they have read, and users see notes from others on books they are currently reading, that the system could expand to offer some real value to people. Who knows, maybe it has already reached that stage and I just don't have any of those books on my book shelf. One thing that would be of interest would be some way to view all notes on the system; some way to see the public note, what book and section it is related to, and perhaps an opportunity to read it. Or, when listing different books, being able to see how many notes (if any) have been applied to a certain book.

All in all, I was quite impressed with Safari and would recommend it to anyone. Considering the cost of purchasing a book, Safari is a steal, especially for someone who reads a lot of books and/or does a lot of research. Safari can save a lot of time and a lot of money. I look at it this way; if an average book is $40USD you can fully view, at your leisure, 40 books over four months as opposed to purchasing one book in that same time frame. If you regularly buy two or more books in a year, you've paid for a one year subscription on Safari, and even with the small (10 book) bookshelf, you have the opportunity to look at roughly 120 books in a year. Not a bad deal at all. And there is no restrictions on printing pages out; if you tend to take notes or want to refer back to certain things at a later date, you can print out the section or chapter if you so desire. And if you like a book, purchasing it online is just a click away.

The only drawback to Safari that I found is there didn't seem to be a place for people to write reviews on books. Certain O'Reilly books I saw referenced external reviews on O'Reilly's website, which is fine, but there is no place for you to write a review, within Safari, or read one written by someone else. I think a feature like this would be a really nice touch.

The other drawback? The fact that they only have computer books on the site. I'd be a happy man if any book available in a book store was available on Safari, but alas, there still is a reason to visit my local book store after all. Just not as often.