Reading

In the main, this isn’t a post about the iPad, although there’s a bunch of relevance there, and the conclusion mostly is about the iPad.

I’ve been experimenting with different reading form factors for digital books over the last few weeks — I’ve of course had my various Kindles (Kindlii?) for a couple of years now, and have basically come to love them. I’ve read maybe a hundred books, at least a couple of over a thousand pages, and would not trade it. It is decidedly not a perfect device, and is…what’s the word?…oh, right: ugly. But it gets a lot right for the way that I use it.

But I’ve also been experimenting with reading on my iPhone (via the Kindle app) and on my laptop (again, via the Kindle app) — and I’ve written about some of my early experience in that mode. And when I say “experimenting,” what I mean is that I’ve been reading whole, long form books on it. When I went to Austin a couple of weeks ago, I intentionally didn’t bring my Kindle, preferring to try traveling without it.

And I’ve been trying to read longer chapters and parts of books on my laptop, through the Kindle application for Windows.

So the first conclusion is one that I’ve made before: it’s having your book content in the cloud that really makes the big difference. Being able to read your books on any screen that you happen to have with you is the thing that matters.

But beyond that, I’m finding that I’m a more capable and thoughtful reader when I use the Kindle, as opposed to the other devices. It’s a little hard to explain, but I can maintain a certain stillness and focus when I’m using the Kindle that I haven’t been able to achieve when reading on the iPhone or laptop — I find that on those 2 devices, I’m a little fidgety, and my mind tends to wander towards all the other things I can do on them. My retention isn’t as good as it is when I’m reading on the Kindle itself, and my attention span isn’t as long.

I think there are a few factors here:

  • The backlit LED screens just really are not as good for your eyes for reading text. There’s a dynamism to the letters from the lighting, I think, that makes it a little harder for me to focus on the letterforms. And I have this feeling that my eyes get fatigued much more quickly with backlit screens.
  • For the iPhone, the screen is just too small to read books without feeling like they have a million pages. So every book feels super long. It’s sort of like reading e-mail on your phone — you always find yourself thinking “holy cow, this is a long note” and then when you look at it on your laptop, you discover it was only a couple of lines.
  • For both the iPhone and laptop, I think I have different mental associations about what I do with them — so I found myself switching back and forth between apps quite a lot — which of course took me out of the flow of the book.
  • The laptop sucks in all sorts of ways for long form reading. There’s a keyboard between me & the screen, for example. The pixel density isn’t all that great. Just to name a couple.
  • The screen on my Kindle is clean. I am pretty fanatical about keeping my Kindle screen free of gunk — I really don’t touch it at all, and am careful about wiping it off when I need to. I’m also a little neurotic (shocking, I know), about keeping my phone (whether iPhone or Nexus One) clean, but there’s always a layer of grime on there, just because I manipulate the UI with my fingers constantly. [New learning: this is doubly gross when you're home sick. Gah.] Even with the extremely cool oleophobic screens that Apple has created, my iPhone is just grimy.
  • The last thing is the battery life — I usually don’t leave the wireless on for my Kindle, which results in something like 3 weeks of actual use in battery life. I just don’t ever worry about whether it’ll run out or not. With the iPhone, I can’t usually get more than about 13 hours — so when I fly, I’m jealous about how I use it, and I’ve got battery meters running in my head regarding how to keep it charged.

I’m the first to recognize that I’m not all that typical a reader — the volume of text I consume, whether long form like text, micro form like twitter, or article length like the web, is pretty high. And I read as much for pleasure as I do for work.

But for me, the Kindle is the must-have device for reading, with the iPhone app a very nice-to-have that I use sometimes, and the laptop really as an only occasional use device — it’ll get better when they introduce searching and cataloging, but won’t ever be primary.

Now, I don’t know how that will change, for me, with the advent of the iPad. First off, I’ll very likely get one — this isn’t about that, it’s about whether I’ll read most books on it. I think they’ve done a number of very nice things in the user experience on it, and it looks like a more intimate media device than I’ve ever seen, really.

[As an aside, I noticed a ton of UI elements that seemed bizarre. A wood grain bookshelf actually in the graphics? Showing the pages and the bindings of the books? The spiral tab in the date book? Weird throwbacks to already out-of-date physical forms -- I guess intended to be for the metaphor bridge for the mass market, but still weird.]

It’s a little hard to tell until I get to read longer books on an iPad, but I don’t think it’s going to be the book-reading device for me.

I think it will be exceptional for many other things, and for people who don’t read as many books, or mostly read shorter form material, it’s going to be very worth paying the additional money to get the functionality over the Kindle. In other words, for people for whom reading is an occasional activity, or for just a few minutes a day, I think the iPad and devices like it will be fine.

I have a nagging suspicion that it will continue the erosion of our ability to read long form books, and actually to make long form arguments — with our politics and our marketing and everything else turning into snippets, I think that’s not such a great thing. But I recognize that’s a curmudgeony attitude.

I just get the feeling that the ability to watch movies and listen to music and swipe pictures around, etc etc, on a device that is people’s primary way to also consume books, will mean that the relative time spent reading will go down.

Some other random thoughts:

  • It’s good to have more readers in the market — I think that will help everyone.
  • I’m very glad they chose a relatively standard format — ePub — that’s a great thing, even though it includes DRM. But I trust the DRM will go away over time.
  • Having said that, the extent of a book catalog shows itself very quickly. There’s a huge difference, for real readers, between catalogs that have the bestsellers and more comprehensive ones. The Amazon Kindle catalog is quite comprehensive at this point — I only run into about 1 in every 5 books that I want that I can’t get.
  • Pretty disappointed in the connectors on the iPad — am really tired of the iPhone connector, and wish they would move to micro USB like everyone else on the planet.
  • I can’t figure out why the early hands-on reviewers thought the virtual keyboard was going to feel great — totally flat keyboards have never felt great. That may not matter, but I thought it was a weird expectation.

Over time, I’d expect the technology in both the Kindle and the iPad to get a lot cheaper — I have a feeling that we may carry around more than one, since they’ll be pretty slim and easy to throw into a bag. But we’ll see.

For now, for me, I’ll keep reading on my Kindle for the foreseeable future, even while swiping around on the iPad for more dynamic content.

7 comments

  1. I’m hoping the absence of depth will be short lived and history will again prove to be cyclic. The more complex issues of our time need more than 140 characters or 30 minutes of discussion. But as long as the right people have the long arguments that need to happen I won’t fret.

    But still, can someone be a fully aware citizen with such small bites of information in each serving? I have my doubts but remain hopeful.

  2. I can’t wait for Flutter to become a reality. Only then will we be able to tackle the problems of today. http://bit.ly/DxMnV

  3. With everything you have going on, I’m curious how you find time to read as much as you do. I feel like I *should* be reading more than I do (I barely keep up with the online/current events stuff), but I’m also at the point where my task list is never empty.

    Perhaps a follow-up post of sorts? Have you discovered a way to live on only 4 hours sleep?

  4. I find myself taking longer articles from the web and reading them on my iPhone or Kindle through instapaper. It’s a fantastic service.

    Another strike against reading content on a laptop screen that you didn’t mention is the form-factor. Most screens are widescreen these days. Though full-screen apps like Stanza do let you layout side-by-side page views, I have never actually tried reading a book like that. I too find backlit LEDs eye-straining for extended periods.

    Speaking of Stanza, it’s still my preferred reader on the iPhone. I managed to read a couple of books on it before I got my Kindle late last year and found it to be a pretty decent experience. I still prefer it over the Kindle app, but the auto-syncing of reading position in the Kindle app is pretty sweet. Curious to see what Amazon does with Kindle in the long-run. I kind of expect they’ll just roll it into the Kindle app gradually.

    I love my Kindle and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with it. I predict they’ll support ePub within the year.

    http://n3wb.com/boolean/archives/2010/01/kindle-epub/

  5. There was a well done short essay on NPR last night that echos some of your fears by author Eric Weiner.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122822760