Amazon Kindle, the sleeping social network

Since Amazon launched the Kindle, I've become a regular reader of something like 30 to 40 books at a time. It sounds terrible, I know, and I confess this with no small degree of sheepishness.

It works only because of that list, only 1 or 2 at the most are ever fiction. I tried to juggle more fiction books and kept forgetting who the characters were, and the Kindle X-Ray feature is not sufficiently advanced to solve that problem. Often the only X-Ray description of a character is a link to the first page in the book in which they're mentioned, sometimes it's a Wikipedia entry, sometimes not even the right one.

I wish the Kindle had something like TV's “Previously, on Lost” recaps but for just one character, summarizing all that had happened to them, but just up until that point in the book. Actually, I need this feature for television, too, I often have to read recaps of Game of Thrones just to understand who some random bearded person was on that episode and how they're related to some other person who I also don't remember.

Anyhow, the reasons I read so many non-fiction books simultaneously:

  1. I have the promiscuous attention span of your typical modern information addict.
  2. I crave more novelty and diversity in my daily information diet than is offered by working through one book at a time.
  3. A lot of non-fiction books are written, packaged, and priced for an outdated age when physical books had to justify their shelf space with some minimum page count. Thus, many books are too long, padded with lots of extraneous anecdotes, and they lose my attention every time I run into a passage of fat. It's like an attention speed bump. Business books are particularly egregious on this front. If Kindle singles had been a thing from the advent of publishing, maybe we wouldn't turn up our noses at shorter books priced at a dollar or two. Some folks have done some experiments in selling short e-books (longer than a blog post, shorter than a book), and I hope it continues.
  4. The rise of blogs and Twitter have have acclimated me to flitting about from one article and topic to another. It sounds unproductive, and I do think I have to actively switch that mode off when doing deep dive work, but at other times it's exhilarating, like standing my mind up from its desk to take a stroll around a dense metropolitan block.
  5. Many of my best ideas come from the interaction between concepts in different fields, and reading books about different topics simultaneously increases the number of such boundary collisions.

The problem with browsing my Kindle library from a thumbnail or list view is it confronts with a whole bunch of titles without any hint at where I'd left off in that book or what concept I was sitting on. This introduces micro-friction, first in the decision of which book to open, then in trying to regain flow within that book. I know, if I just read one book at a time this wouldn't be a problem, but stay with me here.

What I'd love is for my Kindle to open into some type of home feed that sits on top of my entire Kindle library, serving up chunks from all the books I'm reading into small chunks, interweaving them into what would be something like a series of blog posts. It would replicate the way I catch up on articles across the internet every day. Instead of having to do this manually in my Kindle, dipping in and out of books by hand, the Kindle could use some simple algorithm to do this for me.

If you came to the end of one of the passages in your home feed and wanted to continue reading more from that book, you could just tap a Read More link at the end and it would unfold the next chunk. These passages would be short enough to read in one sitting, or perhaps you could dial in a rough range of how large a chunk of information you want served up at a time. If you weren't sure of context on a passage, you could easily click a link at the top that would present a summary of what had gone before, perhaps chapter headings and all passages you'd highlighted, or chapter headings and some summary of each of them. Or maybe, to keep things simple in a first iteration, it would just pull back in the preceding section.

Amazon could build this themselves, or they could open up some API for other developers to build some such functionality on top of the Kindle ecosystem, a strategy they are quite familiar with. The Kindle ecosystem, already the market leader, would level up into a more powerful, useful, and sticky platform. That so much knowledge in books is still locked away behind an old copyright system is unfortunate, but I'm not suggesting that Amazon make books free. The publishers would never go for it. Instead, this feed would sit on top of just books readers had already purchased for the Kindle. I know that today I can access my own Kindle notes and highlights via the web, but it's still a more cumbersome process than it should be.

Lastly, and most importantly, I'd like Amazon to build a true social network around books and readers. I've tried Goodreads, and then later I tried it again. That's not the answer. The site is a bit of a confusing ghost town, and it seems oriented around finding a book to read, which the Amazon site and other resources already do a good enough job solving.

The reading social network I want is around discussing ideas in the text itself. I want the ability to see the notes and highlights of my friends on books we've both purchased, and I want the ability to respond to their notes, or at least to like them. I want them to see my public highlights and notes, and I want them to be able to respond to those. My initial graph could be based on Facebook or Twitter or other social networks I connect, but users could establish their own accounts/usernames so I could find them manually as well.

I would love the ability to follow certain notable folks and see their public notes and highlights. I've long wanted to travel to Texas to see David Foster Wallace's archive, to see what notes he jotted in the margins of books he read. What if those were just published on his books by the keepers of his archive through an account they opened? Imagine seeing Malcolm Gladwell's notes on Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball, or Mick Jagger's notes on passages about him in Keith Richards' biography Life. What if every time a person was mentioned in a book, they'd receive a notification, like a notification that they'd been tagged in a Facebook photo? At a basic level, we'd have a lot more crowd-sourcing of fact-checking, but at a higher level the book becomes an opening to a dialogue.

Perhaps some notes could come at a fee, but I see most of the being free. Imagine being able to pose questions to authors directly in their texts by posting them as a public note. Just as authors started frequenting Amazon to see what their Sales Rank was when that feature launched, now authors would be constantly revisiting their own books to participate in a dialogue with their readers. Books would go from two dimensional to having a z-axis composed of an infinite number of onion paper layers available to scribble on.

Such a platform transforms the purchase of a book into the beginning of a lifelong relationship and dialogue around its ideas. A copyrighted text become not just paywalled content, a locked fortress, but an open platform for contextual conversation. Over time, each book would become richer and richer, a living tome.

Real and virtual book clubs could use Amazon Kindle books as the platform for discussion. You could easily do this by defining and saving a group of readers. Different people read at different speeds, but as each member caught up to a discussion they could jump in and participate. If you weren't a member of a book club, you'd still be part of the book group defined by all the other readers you were following, so everyone would be in a book club on every book in their Kindle library if they wanted to. If they didn't, a setting would allow them to turn off the feature easily, just as you can turn off group highlighting in the Kindle today.

I'd allow users to post links to excerpts or passages or specific page locations in other texts in their Kindle library. If another reader came across that pointer and didn't own the other book being referenced, they'd just see a truncated excerpt (assuming it exceeded some fair use word count limit), with the ability to 1-click purchase that book to unlock the full reference.

This would be a new form of book cross-merchandising for Amazon. I envision that my home feed could include highlights and notes from other readers I was following, and again, if I didn't own the book they were referencing I'd see a truncated excerpt with a buy button to unlock the whole text.

This may sound a lot like the basics of modern social networks and hypertext. And it should. No need to reinvent such elegant ideas, refined over so many years. The real benefit here is unleashing the virtues of networks and hypertext on the massive corpus of text locked up inside books. There's real gold inside those books which have been vetted by publishers and refined by editors and authors over numerous drafts.

That these tools are largely applied just to articles and blog posts that have been written since the invention of the internet is a shame. So many books are still read decades or centuries after they've been published, a decent sign they contain much timeless wisdom.

I suggest Amazon as the best company to launch such a social network because most people I know buy ebooks for the Kindle so the cold start problem for this network isn't as severe. If Amazon for some reason runs with this idea, then I have one more feature request. Please make the Kindle hardware touch screens more responsive. I largely use my iPad to read my Kindle books because typing on a Kindle hardware device is for masochists. The severe latency leads to all sorts of typos and missed keystrokes, I've largely given up trying to highlight or jot notes on Kindle devices. I use my Paperwhite only when I travel, only for books I expect to read without doing much highlighting or annotating, and especially in sunlight where my iPad screen is primarily good for reflecting sun onto my face and evening out my tan.

Asym spacing

I've never heard of this typography concept: asym spacing.

But one tech company believes something as simple as increasing the size  of spacing between certain words could improve people’s reading comprehension. Research going back decades has found that “chunking,” a technique that separates text into meaningful units, provides visual cues that help readers better process information.
The image below shows  the before and after of Asym’s spacing on a paragraph  of text. Quartz  is also experimenting by manually adding Asym’s spaces  to this article. The effect  is subtle, but likely will irk keen-eyed copy editors (sorry!), especially those from the print world who are accustomed  to deleting extraneous spaces.

No idea if the science behind this is solid, but I have heard of chunking. When I took a speed-reading class in grade school, they taught us two key principles. One was not to read aloud “inside your head,” and the other was not to read linearly, one word at a time, but to look at chunks of words (which also makes it hard to read linearly).

Maybe because I already chunk groups of words in regularly spaced text, or maybe because the asym spacing bunched odd groups of words together, I found the regularly spaced text (on the left) easier to read.

Why read (and reread)

Emphasis mine:

But how had I come to believe in this idea in the first place? A combination of my own experience and other things I'd read. None of which I could at that moment remember! And eventually I'd forget that Hilbert had confirmed it too. But my increased belief in the importance of this idea would remain something I'd learned from this book, even after I'd forgotten I'd learned it.

Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you've lost the source of. It works, but you don't know why.


For example, reading and experience are usually "compiled" at the time they happen, using the state of your brain at that time. The same book would get compiled differently at different points in your life. Which means it is very much worth reading important books multiple times. I always used to feel some misgivings about rereading books. I unconsciously lumped reading together with work like carpentry, where having to do something again is a sign you did it wrong the first time. Whereas now the phrase "already read" seems almost ill-formed.

From Paul Graham

For a period of a few years, I stopped reading Graham, or perhaps he wasn't writing as much, I'm not sure which. But recently he's been on some kind of streak.

How we read online

Certainly, as we turn to online reading, the physiology of the reading process itself shifts; we don’t read the same way online as we do on paper. Anne Mangen, a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at the University of Stavanger, in Norway, points out that reading is always an interaction between a person and a technology, be it a computer or an e-reader or even a bound book. Reading “involves factors not usually acknowledged,” she told me. “The ergonomics, the haptics of the device itself. The tangibility of paper versus the intangibility of something digital.” The contrast of pixels, the layout of the words, the concept of scrolling versus turning a page, the physicality of a book versus the ephemerality of a screen, the ability to hyperlink and move from source to source within seconds online—all these variables translate into a different reading experience.

The screen, for one, seems to encourage more skimming behavior: when we scroll, we tend to read more quickly (and less deeply) than when we move sequentially from page to page. Online, the tendency is compounded as a way of coping with an overload of information. There are so many possible sources, so many pages, so many alternatives to any article or book or document that we read more quickly to compensate. When Ziming Liu, a professor at San Jose State University whose research centers on digital reading and the use of e-books, conducted a review of studies that compared print and digital reading experiences, supplementing their conclusions with his own research, he found that several things had changed. On screen, people tended to browse and scan, to look for keywords, and to read in a less linear, more selective fashion. On the page, they tended to concentrate more on following the text. Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading: the more we read online, the more likely we were to move quickly, without stopping to ponder any one thought.

Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker on the ways we read differently online than we do words on a physical page. Interesting throughout.

This piece echoes concerns raised in the results of a study published earlier this year that those taking notes on a computer remembered far less than those taking notes with pen and paper.

The common thread seems to be one of mental focus. If you're reading online but distracted constantly by all the other sites you could be visiting, the ads all along the margin, the multitude of hyperlinks, your email, the whole Pandora's Box of digital age distractions, your mind isn't going to process as much. Similarly, if you're taking notes on a laptop and not mentally trying to comprehend what you're jotting down but instead just mindlessly transcribing in a half zoned out state, your mind may not absorb much of the material.

I'm as guilty of falling victim to mental distraction in this age as anyone (I'm embarrassed to share how many browser windows and tabs I have open on my computer right now), and I think with nostalgia back to my childhood, pre-Internet, when my favorite pastime was finding some nook to deep dive into a novel for hours on end.

How to become a speed reader, updated

Spritzing presents reading content with the ORP located at the specific place where you’re already looking, allowing you to read without having to move your eyes. With this approach, reading becomes more efficient because Spritzing increases the time your brain spends processing content without having to waste time searching for the next word’s ORP. Spritzing also enhances reading on small screens. Because the human eye can focus on about 13 characters at a time, Spritzing requires only 13 characters’ worth of space inside our redicle. No other reading method is designed to help you read all of your content when you’re away from a large screen. But don’t take our word. The following video compares traditional reading to Spritz and is a real eye-opener when it comes to the efficiencies that are gained by placing words exactly where your brain wants them to be located.

More here from Spritz Inc. on their speed reading technology. It's worth looking at a demo of the Spritz speed reading aid in action in this article. By placing each word of the text you're reading in a position so that the key letter of each word is located at the same point, your eye doesn't have to move across words on a page. It turns out that eye movement in traditional reading is inefficient. Allowing your eye to stay fixated in one spot increases your reading throughput (though it sounds lazy; don't make my eye have to move even a few millimeters, it's so taxing!).

I took a speed reading course when I was in 6th grade, I was taught that the key to speed reading was to consume blocks of words at a time and to stop yourself from subvocalizing (that is, sounding out the words silently in your head as you read). You can try a number of tricks to cure yourself of that habit, one is to hum to yourself while reading. That blocks your ability to subvocalize.

Spritz's approach to speed reading is a bit different. Rather than scanning groups of words at a time, you're reading one word at a time. I can't imagine reading that way, but everything new seems odd, and every time I find myself rejecting the new I feel like Grandpa Simpson so I'm curious to try this out.

UPDATED: Professor John Henderson is skeptical of Spritz's claims.

So Spritz sounds great, and even somewhat scientific. But can you really read a novel in 90 minutes with full comprehension? Well, like most things that seem too good to be true, the answer unfortunately is no. The research in the 1970s showed convincingly that although people can read using RSVP at normal reading rates, comprehension and memory for text falls as RSVP speeds increase, and the problem gets worse for paragraphs compared to single sentences. One of the biggest problems is that there just isn’t enough time to put the meaning together and store it in memory (what psychologists call “consolidation”). The purported breakthrough use of the “ORP” doesn’t really help with this, and isn’t even novel. In the typical RSVP method, words are presented centered at fixation. The “slightly left of fixation” ORP used by Spritz is a minor tweak at best.

Two other points are worth noting. One is that reading at fast RSVP rates is tiring. It requires unwavering attention and vigilance. You can’t let your mind wander, ponder the nuances of what you’re reading, make a mental note to check on a related idea, or do any other mental activity that would normally be associated with reading for comprehension. If you try, you’ll miss some of the text that is relentlessly flying at you. The second point is that the difficulty of comprehension during reading changes over the course of a sentence, paragraph, and page. Our eyes engage in a choreographed dance through text that reflects this variation in the service of comprehension. RSVP makes every step in the dance the same. Or, to stretch an analogy, imagine hiking along a forest trail. Each step you take determines your overall hiking speed. Some steps require a longer pause to gain footing on loose stones, and others require a longer stride to step over a protruding root. Would it be effective to run on the trail? Worse, would it be a good idea to tie a piece of rope between your ankles so that each step was constrained to be exactly the same length? Surely this would lead to some stumbling, if not to a twisted ankle or catastrophic fall!