Reading Books, 2.0

Who has time to read books anymore? Between company and family commitments, not to mention the extension of the work day & distraction of social media due to high speed broadband at home & smart mobile devices, our dinners, bathtimes & bedtime rituals are constantly under siege. Even if you can commit some time to reading, short-form media & content, combined with clipping applications e.g. Instapaper & Evernote, have made it even easier to replace time otherwise spent with a book reading more easily digestible articles. At least its more productive than repeatedly pulling down our Twitter or Facebook feeds.

Over the past few years, with a young family to tend to and a startup to build, I stopped reading books — save for the occasional holiday read or 250-pager that I managed to shoe-horn in to a long weekend before getting re-distracted by everyday life. There were a few causalities along the way, the victim of the stops and starts that were a consequence of a hectic schedule.

Then, a few months ago, after powering through a great book that felt particularly relevant to the building of onefinestay (‘Setting The Table’, by Danny Meyer, which is a master class in building a services-led company), I decided to try to start reading books again. And I was really pleased to find that improvements in hardware & software has made the experience of consuming a book dramatically better, quicker (& cheaper) than its ever been.

The new way to read

I’m sure its no coincidence that Amazon, staying true to their roots as a technology & Internet-enabled bookseller, has pushed the game further than anyone else in the e-book revolution of the past few years. I don’t own a Kindle, but I do read books on the Kindle iPad and iPhone app. Thanks to Amazon’s focus on delivering cheap e-books to the consumer, most can be purchased for around $10. Obviously delivery is instant — as a former defender of the tactile pleasure of a physical book, I can now say that I’m convinced that the traditional bookstore (and mass-market book) as we know it will soon cease to exist.

Amazon has made significant advances to book consumption experience. In addition to continually refining book search, reviews & look-inside functionality on its site, they’ve really upped the ante in particular in the audiobook market. Audiobooks have come a long way from my grandparents books-on-tape. Amazon’s audiobooks brand, Audible, is now seamlessly integrated into the book product page and purchasing path. Through the Audible app (admittedly not the slickest), books purchased through my Amazon credentials now automatically appear in the cloud for instant download.

In late 2012, Amazon quietly rolled out Whispersync, a feature as well as price-bundling strategy (similar to Kindle Matchbook - if my book has Whispersync available, I can typically purchase the audiobook on top of the Kindle text version for about 50% off retail). Amazon’s sync is a killer app. Whispersync automatically syncs audiobooks to last read pages on the Kindle, & vice-versa. So this means that I can take my book with me walking home from work and pick it back up in bed later that night. Audible also allows the speed of the book to be increased (typically 1.25x speed works best for me), and if you have a Kindle Fire (I don’t), simultaneous ‘immersion reading’ where the Kindle book highlights real-time in sync with the audiobook. I tried my own version of this, listening at 1.5x speed and reading at the same time, but found the whole experience to be a little intense. Also, the Kindle iPhone app, which syncs up with the other two and is surprisingly pleasant to read on despite screen size, is a great companion for all that time I spend in line at Starbucks.

Consume information like a speed reader

All of the downtime in my day really adds up. The upshot of filling my in-between moments commuting, waiting in lines, sitting in a taxi, etc. has been a major uptick in book through-put. I’d estimate I’m getting through books 3 — 4x faster than I was in reading books 1.0. I’d also say that comprehension has gone way up, too, as the time between readings is reduced and the book is more part of my daily routine. It’s a far more virtuous circle of information absorption — building up momentum in a book alternating between reading and listening. And when I’m suffering from ‘reading fatigue’, switching to audio is a great way to stretch a session.

One other key advantage of the iPad / iPhone based e-book experience is the ability to listen to Spotify or other music apps at the same time. My ‘music’ of choice is actually an album of white noise called ‘White Noise Therapy’, which I personally find helps me concentrate while reading (or working for that matter) by drowning out the noise around me.

Lastly, the Kindle app’s highlighting feature (and Audible’s tap-to-bookmark) makes is really easy to highlight favorite passages and revisit later, as well as share socially (if this is your sort of thing). For business books, this has allowed me to put all the highlights of a book in a single Evernote summary file so I can easily revisit in the future. Typing up and revisiting these highlights also has a strongly positive effect on retention.

So next time you hesitate to pick up a new book, fret not — there’s never been a better time to pick back up that reading habit.