New ways of reading

Though I keep up with technology, in practice I’m fairly far back from the cutting edge. But I’ve recently adopted some new reading technologies that fit together in an exciting way.

I hadn’t used a bookmarking service (for its intended purpose, anyway) until I learned about Pinboard from Alan Jacobs. The design is simple enough that something clicked for me, and now I use it to save a link to any webpage I might possibly want to refer to in the future. The feature that sold me was Pinboard’s archiving capability; for $25/yr it will make a copy of the pages you bookmark, preserving the contents automatically in case the link goes dead later.

Jacobs recommends saving sizeable text excerpts as comments, which can be then be searched. If I can somehow develop the habit of tagging entries when I bookmark them, that plus search will make it a very useful database for me.

Next I discovered that Pinboard is nicely integrated with another simple web service, Instapaper, whose sole function is to take a webpage and reformat it as clean, readable, ad-free text. I use two buttons, one that immediately redisplays the page I’m looking at in minimal format, and the other (Read Later) which save a link to the current page in my Instapaper account.

I click the Read Later button when I come across a page I don’t have time for, e.g. a long magazine article. Later when I do have time, I go to my Instapaper account and choose articles from my list to read. When I’m done, if I decide it is something worth keeping I click on an icon to have Pinboard save it for me.

This new setup made me very happy for a special reason: I love long form journalism. While some folks might lose themselves in a novel, I like to immerse myself in a lengthy nonfiction magazine article. This recent New Yorker article on Scientology pleased me no end with its endlessness. And now with my magic Read Later button I found that I was no longer hastily skimming those articles as I came across them, but rather saving them to savor at a more convenient time.

The only problem was in the savoring. The time needed to read the articles would come up now and then, usually at the end of the day—by which point I was sick of sitting at the computer and not especially excited about settling in for another hour or two for a long read. Meanwhile, a little button on my Instapaper home page kept nagging me: Kindle. I had no idea what that button did. Finally I took two minutes to find out, and things changed.

What that little button does is package up all your Instapaper articles into a Kindle-readable file. I downloaded the Kindle for PC application just to try it out, and sure enough, when I clicked that button it generated an instant, customized magazine just for me. And then the lightbulb lit up: if I had a real Kindle, I could be reading my instant customized magazine in a comfy living room chair. Or wherever else I happened to find myself. So I bought one.

There are plenty of other reasons to own a Kindle, and I plan to avail myself of some of them. Not buying eBooks, though. I have no attachment to physical books, but since I can get the books I want through AbeBooks or Better World Books for $4 including shipping, I don’t see any advantage in paying $10 or more for the e-version.

But that customized magazine is a new thing, something I love, one I can’t get anywhere else, and aside from the cost of the Kindle it is free. For now.

As always, check back in six months to see if its promise was fulfilled for me. But for now I find my Kindle delightful: easy on the eyes, small and lightweight, free of distractions like email and web browsers. I don’t find it much different from reading a book—which I still find very different from reading on a computer, even a laptop. I’ve been able to concentrate, even lose myself. I’ve made myself some nice little books from goldmines I’ve found on the internet, e.g. a series of forty short essays by William Zinsser, one of my favorite writes, which he posted as weekly blog entries. And those books and magazines are available to me anywhere I can take my Kindle; this afternoon I spent half an hour reading the Scientology article as I waited in the parking lot for the UPS customer center to open.

(If you enjoy long form journalism as well, you’ll want to know about, a free site that collects links to what it considers the best long newspaper and magazine articles on the internet. And if you have an Instapaper account, there is a convenient button for saving particular articles to read later.)

Narcissus Regards a Book, by Mark Edmunson

Wow! Not only a great title, but an essay that lives up to it. I’ll just quote my favorite passages in hope that you’ll go and read the whole thing (emphasis added).

Who is the common reader now? I do not think there is any way to evade a simple answer to this question. Common readers—which is to say the great majority of people who continue to read—read for one purpose and one purpose only. They read for pleasure. They read to be entertained. They read to be diverted, assuaged, comforted, and tickled. […]

The news outlets sell one thing above all else, and that is not so much the news as it is newness. What one buys when one buys a daily paper, what one purchases when one purchases a magazine, is the hypothesis that what is going on right now is amazing, unprecedented, stunning. Or at least worthy of intense concentration. What has happened in the past is of correspondingly less interest. In fact, it may be of barely any interest at all. Those who represented the claims of the past should never have imagined that the apostles of newness would give them a fair hearing, or a fair rendering, either. […]

The academy failed and continues to fail to answer the question of value, or even to echo the best of the existing answers. But entertainment culture suffers no such difficulty. Its rationale is simple, clear, potent: The products of the culture industry are good because they make you feel good. They produce immediate and readily perceptible pleasure. Beat that, Alfred Lord Tennyson. Touch it if you can, Emily Dickinson. […]

And the media have another reason for not trying to shape taste: It p—-s off the readers. They feel insulted, condescended to; they feel dumb. And no one will pay you for making him feel dumb. Public entertainment generally works in just the opposite way—by making the consumer feel like a genius. Even the most august publications and broadcasts no longer attempt to shape taste. They merely seek to reflect it. They hold the cultural mirror up to the reader—what the reader likes, the writer and the editor like. They hold the mirror up and the reader and—what else can he do?—the reader falls in love. The common reader today is someone who has fallen in love, with himself.[…]

Reading in pursuit of influence—that, I think, is the desired thing. It takes a strange mixture of humility and confidence to do as much. Suppose one reads anxious about not being influenced. To do so is to admit that one is imperfect, searching, unfinished. It’s difficult to do when one is young, at least at present: Some of the oldest individuals I meet lately are under the age of 21. It is difficult to do when one is in middle age, for that is the time of commitments. One has a husband or a wife, a family and job—or, who knows, a career. Having second thoughts then looks like a form of weakness: It makes everyone around you insecure. One must stand steady, and sometimes one must pretend. And in old age—early or late—how can one still be a work in progress? That’s the time, surely, to have assumed one’s permanent form. That’s the time to have balanced accounts, gained traction, become the proper statue to commemorate one’s proper life.[…]

The desire to be influenced is always bound up with some measure of self-dislike, or at least with a dose of discontent. While the culture tells us to love ourselves as we are—or as we will be after we’ve acquired the proper products and services—the true common reader does not find himself adequate at all. He looks in the mirror of his own consciousness, and he is anything but pleased. That is not what he had in mind at all. That is not what she was dreaming of.[…]