Reading, Reflecting, Failing, Succeeding

One hundred books. That was my new year’s resolution last January: to read one hundred books during 2015. I tend to read a lot of books in general, so that number (though it was definitely a stretch goal) seemed attainable. It is the beginning of December and I’ve just finished my sixtieth book, so it’s safe to say that I wildly overestimated how much I could read. At any rate, here are a few miscellaneous thoughts about my reading experience this year.

On Setting a Quantitative Reading Goal

I came to find that one of the benefits of setting a specific number of books that you will read in a year is that it is an easily measurable goal, and it also keeps you honest. It can be an easy default when I’m commuting to work to just listen to music, read news/blogs, or play games on my phone. But then, after the course of a year, I find that I’ve largely wasted another year of my life frittering away the time on stupid stuff. Having a quantitative goal continually confronting me often helps to choose reading something substantive over slowly slouching toward intellectual death.

The downside of setting a quantitative goal, however, is that I start making decisions, whether conscious or not, to choose books that are quickly digestible, because my goal is to consume as many of them as I can. Similarly, when I start into a book and I can tell that it is not worth my time within the first few chapters, I am more likely to finish such a book because, well, I’ve already started it so I want these pages I read to count towards my goal. On the flip side, when I find myself in the midst of a really good book, I don’t have time to slow down and ponder, consider, or treasure it.

On “Moving Evenly Together”

I tried to read a fairly diverse diet of books this year, and one that was far afield of my normal fare was The Man Who Killed the Deer by Frank Waters. Written in the early forties, it’s an 51t14urxezl-_sy344_bo1204203200_exploration of the tension between Native Americans, Hispanics, and White settlers in the American southwest during the expansion. It’s a classic portrayal of how different cultures can so easily speak past one another and fail to communicate because of their differing presuppositions and expectations as well as power differentials.

There is an oft-repeated trope throughout the book’s tribal meetings that stuck itself thoroughly into my head: the idea of “moving evenly together.” For this tribe, the priority in decision-making is not the decision itself, but to move evenly together, which is to say that they want everyone to “be on the same page,” in modern parlance. It is more than just agreement, however; moving evenly together is about waiting and waiting and waiting until each is convinced in his own heart about going the same direction.

The implicit argument is that how decisions are made is more important than the decisions themselves. It’s a way of thinking that has influenced how I consider my marriage and the decisions that my wife and I make; it is not enough to simply understand one another—we must wait and wait and wait for one another until we can move forward together. We cannot live life in the fast lane this way, and we cannot get as much done. The benefit, though, is that we move through life feeling more valued by each other.

On Obedience as a Good, Beautiful, and Right Thing

I read John Frame’s 1,200 page magnum opus, Systematic Theology, this summer while I was unemployed for a few weeks. It is a wonderful work for a variety of reasons, but it is certainly not for the faint of heart, and as a reference 51gnmr5684l-_sy344_bo1204203200_work it is certainly not intended to be read straight through such as I did. Yet John Frame has an unusually razor-sharp mind, and it is fascinating to grasp snapshot of his entire mental belief system in such a short amount of time, because he truly is able to articulate himself so unusually well.

Frame’s governing principle in his theology is the idea of God’s lordship over the world and all that is in it (which is to say his control, authority, and presence), and the requisite response of obedience on our behalf. Though this concept is certainly draconian and repulsive to our modern ears, Frame elegantly and compellingly draws out the beauty, goodness, wisdom, and logic of laying down our autonomous, personal sovereignty in order to lovingly oblige God as our King. Perhaps you might ask why this is logical. Quite simply, submitting to a good God who only ever works for our best interests and his glory makes a great deal of sense. The sacrifice of libertarian freedom for the privilege of following such a God is a trivial price to pay. Frame helped me reframe (pun very much intended) my thinking about the concept of obeying God from duty to thankfulness.

On Violence and the Goodness of Sovereignty

My wife and I have been reading Stephen Lawhead’s Song of Albion trilogy, which is equal parts perplexing and fascinating (spoilers ahead). Lewis Gillies, a graduate student at Oxford, follows his roommate Simon through a cairn in northern Scotland to another world called Albion. It is an archetype of the British Isles where Lewis and Simon are trained as Celtic warriors to defend and fight for the kingdom of the good King Meldron.

9780310217923Within the first novel all hell quite literally breaks loose, and the innocent are slaughtered all across the land. The upheaval of order and justice results in the destruction of the most vulnerable, and those who wish to defend them. As Lewis eventually finds out, the source of all this horror and tragedy is none other than King Meldron’s son, who sought to rebel against the goodness of sovereignty and would do whatever he needed to usurp the throne. Meldron was a good king and exercised his control, authority, and presence over his realm in ways that worked toward the good of his people. His foolish son saw his father’s sovereignty as a right rather than as a responsibility, and was willing to kill—even the entire realm—to gain it.

Lawhead describes life in Albion with complex strokes: it is at once breathtaking in its vivid hyper reality and gritty with the all too realistic horror of violence and death of average people. It is neither the airbrushed Kinkade painting that you’d expect from American evangelicalism nor the unreal comic book violence of the modern sci-fi/fantasy flick. Lawhead’s brush is so photorealistic that it is disturbing. Evil is actually possible for normal people to inflict and to be victimized by. There’s a particular scene where Lewis is walking through the burnt husk of a town, ashes frozen into place by recent snowfall, and he comes across the frozen corpse of a toddler sprawled in the street. As I read those words, my heart churned within me and yearned for justice to be dealt swiftly, surely, wisely, and well, especially since I know what it’s like now to have a toddler of my own.

This is what good fiction does: it helps me to feel again and feel rightly about our world when I am all but callous and numb to the headlines I read. The violence and devastation in Albion is really no different from Paris, San Bernardino, Syria, and a thousand other places. Reporters and non-fiction writers may tell me what happened, but only the storytellers, the bards, and the artists can teach me how to feel rightly about it.

Concluding Thoughts

It was a fascinating experiment to press my nose to the grindstone of an impossible reading goal this year. I don’t plan on doing a quantitative goal again, at least not in 2016, but neither do I regret doing it. I failed at my new year’s resolution, and if this were a performance evaluation at a job I would certainly be fired. I cannot help but think, though, that in the end I succeeded; I read many good books, interacted with many interesting thinkers thinking about a multitude of topics, and I came by some truly pivotal concepts that have shaped the way I live my life.

Advertisements

Kindling a Revolution in Reading

We bookish types are straddling two very disparate worlds right now. The old world is that of the wonderful used bookstore crammed with too many floor-to-ceiling bookshelves which are in turn crammed with too many used books, each ripe enough to give off that certain scent of a well-loved book. It’s a world that carries a certain comfortable nostalgia for me, like a grilled cheese and tomato soup on a rainy day. It’s also a world that has been massively overturned by the meteoric impact of a new world: digital reading.

Kindle and Book
Two worlds collide.

Kindles, Nooks, Kobos, and all the other knock-offs each come to the ring with none of the nostalgia but with legions of features that make them far more appealing than a traditional book, such as the ability to carry not only a book but an entire library wherever you go. I am personally torn, as perhaps you are, between the joy of reading a hard copy of a book and enjoying the conveniences of the Kindle. I wanted to reflect here on what I’ve found to be valuable about the Kindle ecosystem and then offer a few suggestions on how it could improve.

What I Enjoy About My Kindle

Overall, I have been duly satisfied with the device over the past year. It’s a great form factor, and (in my opinion) has a more pleasing design than its competitors. Tight integration with Amazon means I can purchase just about any book I need (for cheap!) and be reading it in seconds. The refresh rate is speedy, so turning pages no longer suffers from former lag that would derail my train of thought. The Paperwhite lives up to its name with internal illumination that can get incredibly bright. 

Though many people are opting for tablets for their multi-functionality, I was interested in e-ink devices for two reasons: 1) I don’t want to be able to do anything other than read with my device (I’m easily distracted as it is), and 2) I want to avoid the eye strain of reading for long periods of time on a backlit device. Though e-ink displays feel clunky and dated compared to the current level of fluidity on something like a tablet, it was a cost I was interested in paying.

Amazon obviously wants you to be purchasing books through their massive online store, but it’s also possible to download books from third-party retailers and email them to your Kindle, where they are also stored in your own personal document cloud. You can also check out ebook versions of library books via overdrive.com, which stay on your device for the length of the checkout period and then delete themselves.

I can read an ebook as fast or even faster than a traditional book, given the ability to customize and fine-tune typography to my own personal needs. One of my favorite features of Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem is cloud syncing, so that I can start a book on my Kindle and then pick up where I left off automatically on my phone while waiting in a line or on my computer when I don’t have my Kindle with me. Highlights and notes sync as well, which comes in handy when I’m reading for school.

What I Wish Were Different About My Kindle

Though my experience has been largely positive, the technology still has plenty of room to mature. Here are a few things I hope to see in future iterations of digital reading:

Better desktop apps.

The software for the Paperwhite and the iPhone app receive fairly regular updates and are quite commendable, but it’s a different story with the Windows 8 app and the web app (I have not tried their apps for Android or Mac). One of the biggest selling points for the Kindle is the universality of your library: you can read it on pretty much any wifi-capable device you might own. The idea is great on paper, but the implementation is bare-bones at best and frustratingly confusing at worst. Neither the web app or the Windows app support collections, which makes sorting your eBooks rather pointless if they appear as just a big heap in some of the apps. The current situation would perhaps be somewhat more permissible if desktop filtering options were as robust as those on mobile and Paperwhite, but they aren’t. The most filtering you can do is between “Cloud” and “Downloaded,” but you’re out of luck if you’d like to see only Docs or Periodicals. There are other negative observations I could make, but instead I’ll turn to making positive contributions to what desktop apps could mean within the Kindle ecosystem.

My dream for desktop Kindle apps goes beyond the mere ability to present your purchased content on a different device. What if Amazon leveraged the strengths of a desktop computer (namely, its large screen, physical keyboard, and mouse) to make a Kindle app specifically designed for research and analysis? I obviously have academic works in mind more than your average pleasure reading, but it would be immeasurably helpful to be able to quickly sort through all my highlights, notes, and bookmarks and export them to various bibliographic formats. Further, what if Amazon souped up its search algorithm so that it not only did the job of returning results, but did it excellently? As Google knows well, a user isn’t usually looking for every occurrence of a phrase, but rather a specific instance of that phrase. Smart search lists results not necessarily in chronological order, but instead ranks them by relevance. When I am writing research papers, I am sorting through hundreds upon hundreds of quotes. I would like a search function that helps me find what I’m looking for faster, rather than just providing a rough index of word occurrences. It is possible to use Kindle eBooks for academic reading, but the system clearly is not designed to make it easy. Better desktop apps for Kindle would mean a positive contribution to the world of reading that would progress beyond the limits of physical books.

Better typography, consistency, and polish. 

Another frustration with the Kindle ecosystem is its lack of standardization or consistency. One cannot expect the interface elements to be in the same place across different apps: the back button on the Paperwhite is in the top navigation bar, whereas on every other app it is in the lower left-hand corner. Syncing on the Paperwhite is in the drop-down menu; on the iPhone it is in the sidecar menu; on the web app it is in the top bar. When it comes to searching, on the Paperwhite it is in the top menu on the right side. on the iPhone it is in the sidecar menu; on the web app it is in the top menu on the left side. In the Windows 8 app it is in the Windows sidecar navigation panel on the right side of the screen. Some of this is due to operating system-specific design standards, but this alone does not account for all the inconsistency. 

As mentioned above, filtering is simply not available on Windows 8 or the web app. On the iPhone I can filter down to Books, Newsstand, Docs. and Collections. On the Paperwhite I can filter down to Books, Periodicals, Docs, Collections, and Active Content. The lack of standard vocabulary is, simply put, confusing. 

One of the neat features on the Paperwhite and iPhone is their time-to-read feature at the bottom of the screen (it tells you how long it will take you to finish the chapter or the book). This, unfortunately, is absent from the Windows 8 app and the web app. 

Further, there is a lack of standardization across different Kindle eBooks: some have page numbers correlating to physical editions, while some only have digital location numbers. Most books allow you to fine-tune typographic settings to fit your personal needs, but some books puzzlingly do not. The Paperwhite has another handy feature in its “Go To” menu that allows fast access to the table of contents, but this also is not available for every title (even though those titles it is not available for do in fact have tables of contents). I’m sure there’s an understandable technical reason for this inconsistency, but it’s another example of a lack of polish. 

Table of Contents
A lack of standard feature sets between different books in the same digital eBook ecosystem is confusing and irritating. On the left is a book that doesn’t allow access to its table of contents in the “Go To” menu, while on the right is what many books offer.

I risk sounding whiny and petulant with complaints about polish, but for me it significantly impacts the reading experience. If Amazon wants a monopoly on the eBook market, the least they can do is provide top notch apps for users to access their purchased content.

Real-time Syncing. 

As I said above, syncing works fairly well, but if you need to switch from one device to another immediately, you usually can’t. It takes a minute to sync reading locations, and notes and highlights take even longer. Greater seamlessness here would make for a much smoother reading experience.

Disabling Automatic Screen Turn-off.

The Paperwhite automatically turns its screen off after a few minutes of inactivity, which is usually a good thing. It’s frustrating, however, when you’re trying to reference a certain text while writing a paper and the device keeps putting itself to sleep. I haven’t found any way to turn this feature off, which is irritating.

Conclusion

All in all, I have found my Kindle Paperwhite, and the Kindle Ecosystem in general, to be convenient and useful. That being said, it still has a ways to go. I understand that Amazon’s primary aim is to make money by selling books and that their Kindle devices and software are only means to that end, but I hope they understand that they could only gain happier customers who thus spend more money by making the reading experience more smooth, beautiful, and useful. A greater attention to the little details would, in my opinion, be a much more rewarding update than some fancy new (yet half baked) feature such as X-Ray or Goodreads integration.