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Reading PDFs – Superpain.

I face this huge problem of late.

I have a lot of documents to be read which are in the .pdf format. Fine, it’s a universal format, yada yada.

It however is not without its pitfalls.

Firstly, .PDF is more for the visualization than for the content. By this, I mean once you write something to a .pdf file, it’s like you’ve written it to paper. It’s a format for printing out stuff more than anything else. So while there is plenty of software to create .pdf files, there are very few to actually edit them.

So why do I want to edit .pdf files? Well, most academic papers are written with 11pt or 12pt font which doesn’t make for easy reading. And I abhor the large spaces wasted in the margins. I tried Foxit PDF editor, but it turns out that it lets you correct typos, add images, delete images, and add and delete pages, but that’s about it. It won’t let you modify a file in the true sense of the word.

So convert it to Word format. I found an online PDF to DOC converter, and did so.

Job done, right?

No.

You change the font size, it messes up the equations and tables and general layout. You decrease the size of the margins, same issue.

Oh dear god, I really wish I had the original LaTeX source that I could just modify small bits of it, or fit the same text and images into a layout better suited for reading. But trying to do that from a .pdf is like trying to get a live cow from roast beef.

It’s about time proceedings of NIPS and CHI got published in Kindle format, don’t you think? Papers are written to be read, right?

How I read PDFs now

I find I have a lot to read these days. Mostly electronic stuff. And I can’t/don’t always print things out.

I would love an Amazon Kindle, but almost everything I read is in .pdf format. And I like writing notes on paper, or if I’m reading on my laptop, I use OneNote or Tomboy Notes.

Of late, I tried out speed-reading techniques, and found that I read best when I’m able to look at the entire page at one shot. The problem with trying to do that on Adobe Reader is that if you view the entire page at one shot, the font size is too small to read without squinting.

So. What I do now is to flip the screen by ninety degrees. Ctrl-Alt-leftArrow. I get the same feel as reading a book, my finger running down the page, as is recommended for speed reading. I’m just surprised it took me so long to arrive at this. The downside, or rather, the upside of this is that I can’t do anything other than read, because typing, moving the mouse pointer via the touchpad and everything else becomes more demanding.

It’s definitely not a substitute for paper, but it’s better than the other options.

What other options, you ask? I found this tool called Readability, which makes reading HTML pages so much easier. I tried converting pdf to HTML, but when you have a combination of text and images and tables, like in many published papers, the conversion is not perfect, and there are quite a few hiccups in reading seamlessly.

I also tried converting .pdf into the Sony Mobipocket format, but again, seamless conversion is a lofty aim, it turns out. The results are hard to read.

So… for now, it’s Ctrl-Alt-leftArrow.

Do you have a better way to read PDF files? Please do share.

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