How I Read

About two years ago, I came across this passage on Merlin Mann’s blog (this entry being an ode to Instapaper creator Marco Arment):

Are you getting this? I hit one button, and magical and interesting things just…happen.

Things I want to read magically appear on the Instapaper web site.

They also magically appear on my Instapaper iPhone app.

And, because my bookmarked Instapaper items are also available as an RSS feed, they magically appear in Google Reader…

Which now also magically syncs with NetNewsWire on my desktop and…

My preferred iPhone reader, Byline.

And — this one’s the killer — because I’m one of those nerds who bought (and adores) the Kindle, once a week, Instapaper dutifully, magically, shuttles a single file with all of the week’s bookmarked stories directly to my reader.


All of this happens with zero intervention from me. Which means substantial, challenging prose that used to get skipped in the rush of the day now becomes available anyplace it suits me. In the line at the ATM. On a plane. Wherever.

And, that all happened because I clicked one button. If that’s not blowing your mind right now, go read all that again. Because that shit is sick.

via kung fu grippe • Three things about Marco Arment.

This was pretty compelling, and definitely pushed me over the edge with respect to the “can I justify getting an iPhone?” debate. And, almost to the detail, this is still the exact same “workflow” for reading I follow every single day (at least every single day in which I’ve got internet connectivity). I have found myself describing parts of this workflow to a few different people over the past few weeks. So, might was well write it down in one place and tell future people who are subjected to my opinions/advice to come right here and have a look.

It doesn’t take too long to explain “how I read” because, for all intents and purposes, it’s the same flow outlined by Mann. Although I never actually “see” Google, the whole thing centers on Google Reader. Reader is, of course, an RSS syncing and management system. You find internet sources with “content” you like, you subscribe to their RSS syndication feed. This drops the content into your feed reader, notifying you when something new has been published, and (usually) delivering the content directly to your reader.

The key with Google Reader is that it also syncs these feeds from multiple devices. In simple terms, this means you can check your aggregated content from anywhere on the web (a browser, a feed-reading program on your computer, your iPhone, your iPad, whatever) and things that you mark as starred, as read, as unread will show up as such on other devices. While plenty of people just use Google Reader directly through a browser, I use one of the many options for feed reading on both my Macs and my iPhone: an app called Reeder. Reeder grabs your content being synced by Google Reader and displays it for you in a nice, simple and clean interface on both the Mac and the iPhone (or iPad). Reeder isn’t actually doing the syncing of the feeds, for you – it’s just the way that you interface with the Google “guts”/engine underneath. The nice thing with Reeder (like many other apps, I should add) is that it interfaces with the next step in the reading process: Instapaper.

What is Instapaper? You should check out the site. Instapaper is a service that “harvests” (my way of understanding it) content for later reading, keeping it synced and organized. One way of using Instapaper is to use an RSS reader (like Reeder) that integrates with your Instapaper account; if you find entries from your RSS feeds that you think you’ll read later you just hit the Instapaper button and the full text is sent to Instapaper. Additionally, you can install a little “bookmarklet” for Instapaper in any browser so that, once you navigate to some content you want to harvest (e.g. an NY Times article, as is most often the case for me) you can grab it simply by clicking the bookmarklet.

Once your content is in Instapaper, it can be read any number of ways: on the iPhone/iPad through the Instapaper app, through the Instapaper website on any browser, or, more recently, through a Mac app that downloads the Instapaper files so you’ve got them even without internet access. This last option became much more appealing with the recent (massive) revision to the excellent Read Now application.

So, this gets you to Mann’s basic point from above: you now have easily harvested, completely synced, ad-free and stripped down reading material that you can access just about anywhere, any time. You can fairly easily manage the flow of massive amounts of information from many, many sources (via RSS), shunt it into Instapaper, read it, discard it or save it. This is the core of my reading workflow.

Two final points:

1. What about managing items that I’ve read in Instapaper, but want to save for later reference? I’ve got a shit ton of these; after all, most of what I’m reading connects to various lines of scholarly research/writing/thinking or to issues raised by my teaching. Bookmarking and tagging are imperative – the only way to get back to these needles in an ever-growing haystack. For bookmarking, I use the absolutely excellent service, Pinboard. Like Delicious  (and Diigo, which I used before and which has some compelling features) and any number of other services that have come and, too often, gone over the years, Pinboard is a bookmarking service. However, the model is totally transparent and minimal – you own your data, you pay (minimally) for the service and your information/attention is not sold back to you. Another great plus for Pinboard is that these other apps/services all tie in directly, in the background via password. So, read in Reeder, Instapaper or Read Now, like an article and want to save it….now you just hit the Pinboard button, enter your keyword tags and the link is saved. Or, you can pay Pinboard an additional $20 or less each year and they save the full text of each article! Your own personal archive, in case the link breaks, the website dies, whatever.

2. The most exciting thing about How I Read currently is the possible integration of an e-reader – in my case, the cheapest (and, non-“touch”) Kindle. All this reading and access is great…except for doing all this reading on a little 4″ (or whatever it is) screen on my iPhone. It’s killing my shoulders, neck and elbows. Really, it is. The laptop is a bit better, but still far from ideal for reading. I actually own a Nook Touch and really like the e-ink display. But, what I realize these days is that most of what I read is content that first appeared on the web in some fashion and has now ended up in my Instapaper “files”. Instapaper has some options here: with a single click, you can tell Instapaper to take your most recent 10 (maybe it’s 20, I can’t remember off the top of my head) articles, format and download them as an e-pub file (essentially a little book/magazine file, as far as your reader is concerned). You can then manually transfer this to any e-reader. But that right there is the problem: you must manually transfer the file. Yes, that means, plugging it in to your machine, moving the new e-pub over (and possibly deleting an older one, to keep things clean), ejecting the e-reader and then reading it on the e-reader. That doesn’t sound so bad, but it’s not the sort of thing I find myself wanting to do any more often than once a day. In truth, I barely do it at all.

This is where the Kindle advantage comes in: any Kindle you register gets its own dedicated email address. If you have a non-3G Kindle, this email will be delivered, free of charge, when the Kindle is on wi-fi (like, at home). So, you can set Instapaper up to send this e-pub file to your Kindle’s email address. And then you can read your Instapaper content on a proper e-ink screen, from a super simple, super cheap device. The non-touch Kindle, with ads, is now only $79. As a dedicated reading device this seems like a crazy deal. Of course, I don’t own one yet, but I’m really looking forward to getting one and giving it a try.

A last random bit here: you might be wondering why I’m not interested in the Kindle Touch. What I’ve realized with the Nook Touch is that I really dig having an e-reader that I can treat like a book. I want to be able to wrap my hands around the thing, move around with it, etc. without worrying about whether I touch the screen or not. The “advantages” of the touch screen are pretty much moot for me – I don’t mind using small side buttons to advance pages, and the menu system on these readers is simple enough that using a little directional arrow/tiny joystick/whatever input device to control the thing is perfectly fine by me. Plus, the cheaper the better, as far as I am concerned. I want, in essence, a “dumb screen” for reading – I want to dump content onto a small, cheap device with a good screen. If it breaks I will be sad, but I won’t be bankrupt – which is the problem with using an iPad primarily as a reading device (e.g. it starts at $500…which is a lot of money for something my kids might pick up, or I might leave on the couch).


PS – If you want a great review of various e-ink readers, from this particular reading perspective, check out Marco Arment’s detailed comparison. You could even click through on his links, if you choose to buy one, so Instapaper gets a little bit of affiliate credit.

Bliggity Blog and the Importance of “Sane RSS Usage”

After months of spiraling and self-reinforacing guilt-shame over lack of attention to BB here (and, I’m sure, the disappointment of at least a small handful of individuals throughout the world) a recent “debate” about RSS usage kicked my ass back into “self-actualized” mode with this blog. This should be good for at least a few posts in the next month, before some other (non)catastrophe leads to yet another blogapocalypse on BB.

First, a brief tip of the hat the tech warriors debating the utility of RSS feeds. Ars Technica’s Jacqui Cheng goes so far as to call RSS “poison”, at least in so far as clogging up your reader with high-traffic feeds defeats the very purpose of having a centralized place for content dumps. Marco Arment, on the other hand, makes a good case for sane RSS usage, arguing that RSS is perfect for, ahem, er….well, blogs that are infrequently updated, and perhaps not worth reading in the first place. Of course, the real take-home point/factoid from the Ars Technica article is that some poll reports only 6% of American’s actually use RSS in the first place. Given that BB has always run on a quality over quantity ethos in the domains of both content and readership, I’m good with that.

The really pathetic thing about my serial abandonment of the blog is that I’ve got, I think, 4-5 posts in draft form currently saved. I even write stuff and then put it aside! I am hoping that this new era of being a tenured professor will also usher in better blog discipline. In theory, I should now feel liberate in my working life, able to parse out my writing efforts across student grading and communication, my own scholarly work and correspondence (the latter of which, I have come to realize over the past 10 years, is absolutely foundational to intellectual and professional development but is also enormously time-consuming), as well as steady blogging here at BB. Right now the more mundane and utterly draining communication for administrative stuff (override numbers to classes, planning the course schedule for next semester, etc.) leaves me feeling like there will never be any time for stretching the brain out a bit….but I always tend to feel overwhelmed at the start of a semester.

But, I could at least get these drafts converted over to the published column, right?