Reading Fast, Reading Slow (Tools We Use)

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 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.

13 thoughts on “Reading Fast, Reading Slow (Tools We Use)

  1. Kerim,

    This is an immensely useful post! I’m going to save it to Instapaper, print it out for reference, and who knows what else, just to make sure I have it handy.

    I have a question related to your reading: what is your daily process for reading, and how do you hold yourself to it?

    I find that Devouring is nearly impossible for me. I spend waaaaay too much time in the Scanning phase, save lots of reading material for later, and then never really make the time to read them.

    Similar to using 750 Words as a framework to force daily writing, do you have any personal tricks to get your self to really read something that takes more than 45 seconds?

  2. Yikes! I was too busy scanning and browsing… never made it to the closing paragraphs. Just further proof I need to adopt some technique.

    This reminds me of a story a famous writer once told about how he developed the discipline to site and write for long periods of time (don’t remember the writer).

    He began by forcing himself to sit at a table with only paper and pencil for 15 minutes. He did not require himself to write, but he he did not allow himself to do anything other than write. It was difficult at first, but he finally made it through multiple sessions holding himself to this rule. Writing finally came, and he gradually increased the session time, etc.

    The physical timer (the “pomodoro”) is definitely an important part of this approach.

  3. @Kerim

    I am fascinating at our similar our experience has been. I, too, have tried Zotero and Sente and moved on to a combination of Dropbox and Evernote. I will pay a price when I don’t have all the neatly formatted references that Zotero and Sente produce; but in the meantime, simple is best.

    In that same vein, have you taken a look at the IA Writer app for the iPad? When I first read a description, I couldn’t see what people were getting so excited about. Wasn’t the app, technically speaking, just a stripped-down text editor? Yes, and no, no, no. The stripping away leaves you with nothing to do but write—like Paul’s writer with his pencil and paper and fifteen minutes. But the interface is incredibly elegant and the extra row of buttons at the top of the online keyboard let you do things like insert quote marks and parentheses painlessly, with no need for complicated keystroke sequences. The font is big and readable; the screen is easy on the eyes. Everything you write is automatically saved to iCloud, but you also have other options. The one I now use all the time is the “Copy Text” in the save to/forward menu. One click captures everything I just wrote, allowing me to shift to Evernote and save a backup copy there, where it’s easy to find later.

    Having looked at the Hackprof article on Pomodoro, I see a similar impulse here toward radical simplification—the only way to get stuff done in a world full of distractions.

  4. @John
    I have IA writer, but I find I prefer using Pages. For quickly syncing text notes I’ve been using SImplenote, because in the past I found Evernote too slow, but it is getting better and I’m thinking of switching back…

  5. All of that highlighting and annotation stuff seems so complicated to me (although I suppose once you settle into a system it becomes more fluid). I’m still really attached to taking notes by hand in a physical notebook, then later retyping them into a word processing document. The physicality of it helps me focus on “devouring,” and the retyping is a good way of reviewing what I read. Then again, I’m always paranoid about there being a fire or something that causes me to lose my physical notes before I get them retyped and backed up in Dropbox (incidentally, I think I learned about Dropbox from someone on this site — thanks, it has been so helpful).

  6. Thanks for this useful post, Kerim. A few words about annotating on the Kindle itself (not the Kindle app for other devices). Kindle only uploads highlights and notes made on content purchased from Amazon, so for academic articles, books from non-Amazon sources, etc. you need to pull annotations off the Kindle itself. They are all stored in a file, “My Clippings.txt” that you can access via usb. The formatting of that file is not particularly useful, however. But you can make it easily useable here: Also, pdfs all look pretty bad on the e-ink Kindles (I have no idea about the Kindle fire). If you convert articles to doc or html, they are a lot more readable. Hopefully academic publishers will start releasing articles in more ereader friendly formats. I’m really enjoying doing my “devouring” on the Kindle. It’s much easier on the eyes and less full of distractions than computers or tablets.

  7. Kerim, I’m curious. Why do you prefer Pages? For note taking I use Evernote itself. I’m enjoying Writer for when I’m in straight stream of consciousness writing mode. I can always shift to Pages later for copy editing and prettying up.

    On another note, have you tried Skitches, the new image mark-up app from the folks at Evernote? I tried it just now and think it might be a huge help to people doing fieldwork.

  8. @stm Thanks for the Kindle tip. I think the new Kindles are getting better at PDF handling, but the main reason I got an iPad is because it does this so well. As far as I can tell, it is still the best device for a PDF-based workflow and will remain that way for at least another year or so. (I’m hoping that the iPad 3 will bring a higher resolution display making reading as nice as it is on the iPhone.)

    @John I just find it easier to use Pages. It preserves formatting well between iPad and Desktop, and it works well with Sente for producing bibliographies, it has a nice full-screen mode on the desktop, and it makes use of the new OS X “versions” feature, etc. And yes, I am a long time user of Skitch on the desktop and I love the iPad app.

  9. @Kerim

    Could you say a bit more about “works well with Sente for producing bibliographies”? It’s been a while since I tried out this combination. Have there been significant improvements?

    One of the things I like about Writer is that it doesn’t allow me to worry about the formatting. Then, when I shift to Pages on the desktop to copy edit and format, I am working in a new context that sharpens my awareness of where I need to make improvements.

  10. @John I don’t have anything particular to add about this except that it is a workflow that works well for me without any particular problems. Maybe I’m just used to it. Chacun à son goût…

  11. Another way to access annotations made in a Kindle reader is to download the Kindle for PC/Mac software and sync with your Kindle reader. The notes can then be accessed and by using “cut and paste” placed in a word doc, Evernote, etc. The cite comes along, too, including book title, author, publisher, etc.

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