July 2009

sumerian-clay-tabletSince the development of written language, mankind has experimented with different reading “devices” and formats.

  • Inscription on the walls of dwelling spaces or public buildings
  • Engravings on clay tablets
  • Scrolls
  • Bound books with pages

Over the last two thousand years or so the bound book reading experience has become so ubiquitous it is difficult to imagine any other way to read.  The structure that surrounds our reading experience has slipped beneath the level of our consciousness.  The only thing that surprises us is when a book comes with an odd trim size, similar to the micro jolt we get when someone hands us an odd sized business card.   

early bound bookEvery readng device has its opportunities and tyrannies.  The page in the bound book of today provides a simple unit of reading; the total number of pages lets us know in advance how much information a book contains or how much effort will be needed to read it.  Page numbers and headers provide useful reference points.  But the price of paper and ink limits the information that can be conveyed.  This has always been the problem with all previous reading devices:  the cost of the physical medium used to convey the information scaled with the amount of information.

But electronic reading devices offer an escape from that hard rule.  E-reading or reading with the aid of software offers us new opportunities (and doubtless many tyrannies as well). 

  • Extension – Linking to related material
  • Search – Finding without the need for page numbers or indexes
  • Filtering – Hiding irrelevant or uninteresting parts of the book; especially useful for second readings
  • Layering – Accessing additional information (e.g. pictures and / or background material) via layers that can be turned on or off under reader control
  • Annotation – Adding / editing your personal annotations (actually part of layering)
  • Sharing – Connecting to your favorite reading groups and sharing your comments and quotes from the book
  • Apps – Simple applications that make the reading more enjoyable – e.g. embedded dictionaries, automatic translation to another language and summarization of key information.  For fiction this might include summaries of the story to the point where you last left off to refresh your memory between reading sessions.  Innovative developers will find ways to extend the capabilities of our reading devices similar to what has been done for the iPhone.
  • Multiple modalities – Switch between reading and listening
  • Metrics – Tracking personal stats on everything you’ve read

Like it or not, over time our books will become more like computers and we will expect them to the things that computers do.  Our long standing reading model will change as the physical nature of our primary reading device changes.  The big limitation may become, not physical cost, but reader attention.

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personal-metricsPersonal metrics – information that we collect about ourselves – have a natural appeal.  We want to be better – if we can measure something about ourselves and optimize it, we will.  Today that process is becoming easier with the help of sensors to collect personal data and web sites that help us make sense of it.  Individuals are keeping track of all kinds of personal data – including caloric intake, how much we’ve exercised (e.g. Nike + iPod video below), the state of our finances.  This is what Gary Wolf in a recent Wired article referred to as “self knowledge through numbers.”

Nike+iPod in action

So why not personal reading metrics?  We capture general statistics about reading levelsof the population.  And with a little bit of mathematical dexterity it is possible to calculate our per capita consumption of books.  But this doesn’t tell us anything interesting about our individual reading habits.  e-Book readers offer a platform that could help us collect and track information about what and how we read.

For starters we could track:

  • Total books read over a given time period; also categorized into genre or type
  • Books never completed (similarly categorized)
  • Average number of pages and words per session
  • Average length of each reading session (which could yield average reading speed) and time between reading sessions
  • Amount of reading by time of day

Data could be uploaded to websites with the appropriate algorithms and graphing capability to take care of the analysis and trending for us.  By providing just a little of additional personal data, we could even benchmark ourselves against other readers with similar demographics.  Anonymized aggregates of such data could provide publishers with valuable information about their titles and readership.

Such metrics might be viewed as self indulgent.  But, given the natural inclination to improve our stats,  they could spur us to read more.

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