Nathan Hwang

E-reader Retrospective and Engelbart’s Bookstand

I’ve had my trusty e-reader for nearly 5 years, but now it’s starting to give up the ghost. The battery is starting to run down, so it isn’t quite free range any longer, and it has started shutting down randomly: waiting for your book to reboot is exactly as annoying as it sounds. After 5 years, any honeymoon effect has surely worn off, but I still think it’s a great investment. E-readers really do enable reading everywhere, even on a bustling subway, and offering an entire library on the go is great. Tough day at work? Some light science fiction is there with you. Fully awake and ready for a challenge? The weighty non-fiction works are there too. It’s a pocket library, and when you consider how small Manhattan apartments can be, compressing all my current books into a slim device is great.

I do wish that some things were different, though:

  • I originally had high hopes for reading PDFs on e-readers: the fact the Kobo Touch had a marginally better PDF reader than the Kindle weighed heavily on my e-reader choice, but after a while I gave up. It got too frustrating to manually cram a letter sized page onto a 6 inch screen, and the relatively slow redraw rates made scrolling grating.
  • At first I mostly read novels with my e-reader, but at some point I started shifting away from science fiction and towards science fact, so I wanted to start taking notes while reading. The Kobo has an integrated note taking function, but it’s clunky and capturing thoughts takes a long time. Physical books aren’t any better in this regard: writing notes in a book margin while riding the subway might be even more awkward than futzing with a touchscreen keyboard. However, the lack of options doesn’t change the fact that not being able to note on the go hamstrings reading more thoughtfully everywhere.
  • Resources like “How to Read a Book” and “How to Read a Paper” recommend initially focusing on the key points of a work (like the introduction and conclusion) to sketch out a map of ideas in the book, which then lets you cherry pick which parts of the book to read. But, trying to skip through a book with an e-reader is a slow process. Even trying to read the first sentence of each chapter is an exercise in patience, given the handful of taps and redraws required to move to the beginning of each chapter.
  • Similarly, after reading a book once, it’s difficult to browse back through the book quickly while taking notes elsewhere. The Before E-reader era of my life trained me to exploit a spatial sense while reading, letting me know that an idea felt a third of the way through a book. In contrast, the e-reading experience seems geared towards moving in a linear fashion through the latest zombie romance: as noted before, skipping from place to place is slow, while moving forward a page is a simple swipe or tap away. Having full text search does partially make up for these shortcomings, but only when the keyword is unique enough that there isn’t a squall of matching search results.
  • Footnotes are handled terribly: I don’t want to wait seconds for a footnote to come up only to find out that it says “Ibid., p. 205″. Please, give me some indication what’s behind that tantalizingly underlined number! Or even better, just let me flick my eyes down to a footnote, like God the author and publishers intended.

These point towards a common failing: e-readers are not outfitted for a full contact reading experience that starts by surveilling the book with a high powered scope, and ends with a rubber-hose powered interrogation. However, I’ve noted in places that physical books also tend to have these failings. Taking a step back, serious reading seems to simply need a desk and a sheaf of blank paper situated in a remote cabin, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

II.

Okay, I lied. The techno-optimist in me thinks it’s possible to apply enough technology to the problem so we can recreate the remote cabin in the press of Times Square. But first, let’s talk about playing the violin.

Violins are hard to play. Anders Ericsson in Peak explains:

The difficulties start with the fact that the violin’s fingerboard has no frets, the metal ridges found on a guitar’s fingerboard that divide it into separate notes and guarantee… each note played will sound neither flat nor sharp… there are various subtleties of fingering to master, beginning with vibrato… Using the bow properly poses another whole level of difficulty… Violinists control the volume of their playing by varying the pressure of the bow on the string, but that pressure must stay within a certain range… [and on and on]

However, it’s not just the effort and tenacity of a player that produces amazing music. The violin itself is engineered to make music, to be flexible enough to allow a lifetime of effort to be spent learning how to produce all the nuances. In contrast, the kazoo is an amazingly simple instrument, but with a correspondingly low ceiling on musical achievement[1]. To produce great work, human skill is one side of the equation, but the flexible tooling that allows expert expression is the other. And together, there is music.

What about technological tools? Engelbart, presenter of “the mother of all demos”, knew machine interfaces could be molded to man, but thought the best fit could be achieved by simultaneously molding man and machine at the same time. Take stenography as an example: stenographic equipment allows humans to type at 360 wpm, versus the 256 wpm attainable with QWERTY. Using the proper text entry tooling allows amazing performance with practice, which is why the stenograph is sometimes called Engelbart’s violin.

The downside is that key word, practice. Learning to use specialized tools takes longer than learning to use simpler, more general tools. Sometimes, though, you need that extra effectiveness. Consider that there are only 300,000 expected waking hours left in my life. This is not enough hours. However, barring immense technological change, that’s all I have to work with, so the tooling I use is important.

Bringing this back to reading, I’m hankering for a crafted reading machine, Engelbart’s bookstand: not necessarily a machine that allows me to speed read (speed reading probably doesn’t work), but to otherwise quickly understand the written word, even skipping that which does not need to be read: “perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. A machine that would help me chart the ebb and flow of ideas, explode a book from a series of pages to the web of thoughts as it existed in the writer’s mind.

Nothing like this exists yet: even the remote cabin requires you to chart your own explorations, to impose your own structure onto blank pages. Looking at trends, though, it seems like the tsunami of data[2] might continue until we need better ways to read, and then we’ll start exploring the space of reading software in earnest. Or, maybe no one cares (people are making a big deal out of watching TV shows at 2x, after all), and I’ll have to find some time to scratch this itch myself.

Until there’s a better way, though, I’ll keep reading along with a trusty e-reader.


[1] When people use kazoos to make something that sounds like music, we applaud them not for making music using a kazoo, but for making music despite using a kazoo.

[2] People are watching TV shows at 2x speed

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