Over the course of a single day I engage in a number of different activities for which the word “reading” doesn’t seem to do justice: I scan my social networks, I check my email, I review student work, I browse articles and books related to my research, and I engage in deep sustained examination of a single text. Each of these tasks require a different frame of mind and, increasingly, different technologies. To simplify matters, I will talk about only three types of reading, each of which encompasses several of these reading-related activities: scanning, browsing and devouring.
I spend too much time doing this. The dopamine hit one gets from finding something new is immediate and gratifying. I have my email, Google Reader, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc. each of which is sending me a steady stream of new links. (Follow our SavageMinds Twitter feed or Facebook account for the results of this time-wasting activity.) I check all of them throughout the day. Especially Twitter.
One of my favorite ways to browse all this in one place (excluding Google+ for now, but I’m sure that will change) is Flipboard for iOS. Google tried to buy Flipboard and when they failed made their own app called Currents. Currently Flipboard is still way ahead of the Google, as well as other competitors like Pulse, Zite, etc. (Here is a post from Lifehacker reviewing several of the options.)
To make the best use of Flipboard, you want to group your favorite Twitter sources into “lists” so that each list can have it’s own magazine on Flipboard. I haven’t been doing a great job of updating my various lists, but you can see mine here (or post your own in the comments.) You can do the same thing with Google Reader folders and Facebook “Friends Lists.”
But if you are in scanning mode, what do you do when you find something interesting to read? There are now a number of “read later” services, but my favorite is still Instapaper which gives you a nicely formatted offline reading experience on your smart phone or Kindle. Flipboard and many other apps have Instapaper support built-in. But this doesn’t work for everything. What if someone links to a book? Or a movie? Or an article which doesn’t work in Instapaper? Or perhaps it is just a website you want to save for later?
In that case, my favorite option is the social bookmarking service Pinboard.in. Pinboard can be set to archive your Twitter account and even automatically bookmark every link in your Twitter feed. But I prefer more selective control. For that there is an option to only bookmark “starred” tweets. This means that as I read Twitter I can “favorite” something and know it will be bookmarked in Pinboard. I can then return later and process the links accordingly. I will usually add books to my Amazon wishlist, movies to my RottenTomatoes “want to see” list, and articles to my Zotero list.
Browsing is a more engaged and purposeful type of scanning. This is what I do when I’m doing research. There are really a couple of different activities I might be engaged in when I’m browsing. I might be actively searching online, in which case I’ll add finds to my Amazon wish list or Zotero, or perhaps save a website to Evernote (Pinboard can also archive websites offline, but I prefer Evernote because I can also save PDFs, and I can select which part of a webpage I wish to archive – it also works well on iOS.) I also get various TOC and Google Scholar Search alerts via email. But here I want to focus on another type of browsing which is the process of going through actual texts and figuring out what you want to do with them.
I used to use Sente for this, but increasingly I find it easier to simply save PDFs in a folder in my Dropbox account which seamlessly syncs with my favorite PDF reading application: GoodReader. It is much easier to sit on the couch with my iPad and quickly scan these PDFs than it is to do at my desktop. The articles I must read go in a “must read” folder. For books, I download sample book chapters to Kindle, and use the Kindle iPad app in the same way. The books I decide to read I then buy from Amazon. If the book isn’t available on Amazon (or anywhere else), I will scan the book in Google Books if I can, or sometimes the publisher has a sample chapter.
Increasingly many books are available online in PDF even if the publisher doesn’t officially make them available as texts. This happened with the music industry earlier, and I think academic publishers would do well to learn from the past by making their books available via legitimate services like Amazon and Apple. One interesting new option is 1dollarscan which will scan your books at a rate of $1 for 100 pages. The downside is that (for copyright reasons) they will then pulp the book after scanning it for you. For a cheap PDF of a book not currently available, one could purchase a cheap used copy online and send it to 1dollarscan. I haven’t tried this, but you might even be able to have the book sent to them directly.
So you’ve finally got your articles in Instapaper, Kindle, and/or GoodReader and want to sit down with a cup of tea and engage in some more careful reading. Things still aren’t that simple. What if you want to take notes? While printed texts can all be dealt with in the same way: a highlighter and/or a pencil, electronic texts have different restrictions depending on the software and publisher. Instapaper lets you save articles you like directly to Evernote. GoodReader lets you highlight text and then email a summary of your highlights, which you can send to Evernote via your private Evernote email address. A more complicated scenario is when you have a PDF that doesn’t have text which can be selected. Then you either need to run it through OCR software on your computer, or use GoodReader’s other annotation tools which let you draw over the PDF. (I usually use the “box” tool and simply draw a box around the text I am interested in.) The annotated PDF can then be sent to Evernote, which will do it’s own OCR, allowing you to search the full-text of the PDF (assuming you have a “pro” account).
Kindle is more difficult. Kindle lets you make highlights (read this tutorial), but then you need to go to the webpage and copy those annotations back to your computer. There is no way to simply copy or email these annotations from the Kindle app. Because some publishers restrict how many annotations you are allowed to make on a single book, you might need to backup and delete some of your annotations before you can make additional highlights. For the tech savvy, there are also ways to crack the Kindle DRM and save the book you’ve bought as a PDF in GoodReader, where you will be free of such restrictions.
As I mentioned above, it is very easy to find oneself spending far too much time “scanning” and “browsing” and not nearly enough time actually “devouring” the books and articles that we have already decided to read. It is too easy to be distracted by the constant stream of incoming distractions. Research shows we are far worse at getting back to concentrating on the task at hand than we think we are. My solution for this has been to adopt the Pomodoro approach. This means you set a timer for 20 to 25 minutes during which you don’t do anything except read. When I started doing this I found myself itching to check Twitter after about ten minutes. Slowly, using this approach, I’ve re-trained myself to go for longer without seeking distractions. You then “reward” yourself with 5-10 min of scanning before doing another “Pomodoro.” I personally found Pomodoropro to be the best Pomodoro app for iOS. They don’t yet have an iPad version, but the iPhone version works just fine on the iPad.
That’s it for now. A year ago I wrote a similar post about “going paperless” but a lot has changed in a year. I imagine next year this will all look hopelessly out of date. If you have your own suggestions, or a more Android friendly version of some of the iOS apps I listed above, feel free to share them in the comments.