Handling PDF files

Handling PDF files

Many excellent books are available free online as pdf files. That’s great, but reading them on a screen for hours every day leads to eye strain, headaches, and a scatterbrained feeling that makes it hard to think clearly. Here are some thoughts on how to mitigate these problems while still making extensive use of pdf files.

1. Use an e-ink reader. This type of screen does not shine any light at you, so it feels like reading a paper book. The Amazon Kindle e-readers have used this technology for years. Nowadays there are several companies making e-ink tablets that can browse the internet in addition to reading books. I got an Onyx Boox Nova3 in August 2021 and I’ve been very pleased with it. E-readers are not cheap – mine was $350 – but the prices should come down as the technology develops and as the supply of used devices for resale increases.

The e-reader is perfect when I’m doing research and I want to read an entire book, but most likely I’ll never read it again. To print the whole book just to read it once would be wasteful, plus it would fill up my shelf space way too quickly. Ordinarily I would read it on a computer screen, but now I use the e-reader and avoid the eye strain.

2. Print the pdf files. Once you get your equipment set up and get familiar with it, this is very practical and is not too expensive. What you need:

  • Black & white laser printer with automatic two-sided printing
  • Three-hole punch
  • Report covers with tang/prong binding
  • Copy paper
  • Replacement toner, toner cartridge, drum unit

It takes some experimenting to figure out the best way to print the file. Sometimes one page of the pdf fits well on one printed page, and then it’s easy. More often, one page of the pdf fits on half a page of 8.5 x 11 copy paper. For those cases, I set the printer to multiple page 2 in 1, binding offset 0.42 inches. That ends up looking like this:

Laser printer. A laser printer is better than inkjet because the toner (black plastic dust that serves as ink) is much less expensive than the liquid ink used by an inkjet. Black-and-white is less expensive than color, and most books are black-and-white anyway.

I use a Brother HL-5340D printer; it has been working well for 10 years. The paper almost never jams. I refill the toner myself, and replace the drum and the toner cartridge as needed. If you buy those supplies instead of new toner cartridges whenever you run out, it’s a huge savings.

Brother is a good quality brand of laser printers. They are built to be easy to refill with cheap consumables (explanation). There are Brother MFC models that include fax/scan/copy features, which is great, but if the output tray is shallow you’ll have to babysit the printer when you’re doing a large print job. That’s probably a good tradeoff, especially for the copy feature which allows the printer to function as a copy machine. Most models have self-feeding, so you can put a stack of papers into the feeder and it will copy them all.

Three-hole punch. My Swingline Light Touch 3-hole punch has also been working well for years. It seems like 20 sheets is a small capacity, but that’s about the number of sheets that’s practical to punch through at once.

Report covers. I use two sizes of report covers: standard size that comfortably holds 100 pages, and large size that can hold as much as 2 inches of paper, or 500 sheets. Most books fit into the standard size.

For the large size, there is a clear best choice, the ACCO pressboard report covers. Search for “ACCO 25073” (that’s dark blue; other colors show up after you click through) and look for a price around $3 or less. There is a crazy range of prices on these; at the time of this writing, the best price is officesupply.com at $2.33 each; shoplet.com is $3.02, Office Depot $4.09, Amazon $4.84, Staples $5.09, Walmart $7.04, Target $11.76. It has been this way whenever I’ve looked.

For the small size, my favorite looks like Avery 47976 in all but the first picture here. It’s made of paper and the fasteners are built into the folder itself, not to a stapled-in insert which is much weaker. Some report covers are made of plastic with the sturdy design (oxford) (blue summit). Perhaps a trip to an office supply store would be a good way to get started, so you can see for yourself what choices are available.

If you keep checking and you wait for a sale, you can get report covers very cheap. Sometimes there’s a huge discount on one color. It’s unpredictable.

Copy paper. Self-explanatory. A case of 4000 sheets for under $40 is good.

Replacement toner, toner cartridge, drum unit. The toner cartridge and the drum unit are the guts of a laser printer; when you replace both, you practically have a new machine. My toner lasts for maybe 1500 pages, then it tells you it’s running low because the black looks faded on the printed page. It keeps printing for a long time once it’s fading, unlike an inkjet which fails all at once.

After something like 10 refills, the toner cartridge gets worn out. After something like 5000 pages, the drum unit gets worn out. I don’t know how to distinguish which of them is going bad. Signs that something needs replacing are blurry printing, spattering of toner on the printed page, vertical line where nothing prints. You can try replacing the toner cartridge first, and if that doesn’t help, replace the drum unit.

It takes some experimenting to figure out how to get your printer back to normal when something’s wearing out. The easy solution is to replace both the toner cartridge and the drum. But I’ve had a situation where a new toner cartridge caused the duplex unit to frequently jam, so I put the new photosensitive drum on my old toner cartridge and it worked fine.

I get my consumables from lasertekservices.com.

3. If you must read on an LCD screen, be smart about it.

Turn down the brightness setting on your screen or device. Take frequent breaks, e.g. 10-minute break every hour, or 5-minute break every 30 minutes.

If you’re using a computer monitor, change the settings to reduce blue light. Many newer monitors have a Low Blue Light mode. Some have a color temperature setting; make it warmer. Some have separate adjustments for Red, Green, and Blue; turn down the blue.

You can try wearing glasses that block blue light. In my experience they don’t make much difference, but you might get better results.

4. Buy a printed book when it makes sense.

There is a large supply of used books for sale online, many of which are very cheap. They get donated from libraries and households that are getting rid of old books, and then they are resold by for-profit companies for a very small profit. It would be much more expensive to print these books yourself. The best place to shop for them is bookfinder.com. In particular, two types of books are better in print than in pdf:

a. Books that make extensive use of color.

For example, a World Atlas or a chemistry textbook. Reading these in grayscale, you lose a lot of valuable info. Slightly older but still very serviceable editions of these books can be found in print for excellent prices. It would be far more expensive to print these yourself.

b. Very popular books that you’ll want to read several times.

A compact 5″ x 8″ printed book is more convenient to carry around than an 8.5″ x 11″ printout. These are very cheap because there are so many copies floating around. An obvious example is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but religious books can also be very cheap; for example, in June 2022 there were 20 copies of St. Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary for less than $4 each including shipping.

When does it not make sense to buy a printed book? When it’s too expensive, it’s not available, or you only want to read small parts of it. For example, all eight volumes of Wernz-Vidal’s Ius Canonicum are available free as pdf files, but the print versions are $50 per volume or $300 for the full set, at the time of this writing, with limited availability.

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