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Welcome to the third installment of “How We Will Read,” a series exploring the future of reading from the perspectives of publishers, writers, and intellectuals. This week we spoke to Craig Mod, writer, publisher, and former designer at Flipboard.
Craig has written and spoken on the future of books before: Check out “Books in the Age of the iPad” and “Post-Artifact Books and Publishing” — essays that have been heavily clipped on Findings. Craig has the perfect combination of skills for a leading innovator in digital publishing — his extensive experience as a designer, both for devices and for print, dovetails with his skill as a writer and his own love for reading. He’s particularly interested in the intersection of digital publishing, education, and “super cheap devices.” Craig splits his time between Palo Alto and Tokyo, working on a project that combines all of these interests. It’ll probably be incredible… but we don’t know what it is yet! In the meantime, we wanted to know how we was reading these days, and where he thought publishing might innovate. (Hint: hover cars may be involved.)
How do you do most of your reading these days?
In order of frequency: third-generation e-ink Kindle with keyboard, iPhone, physical books.
The recent touch-based Kindles fail for me given their lack of page-turn buttons (although I love how much more intuitive touch-based swipe-to-highlight … but then, I lament the loss of highlighting across pages. Always something!). I find the keyboard Kindle still works the best for me. I suspect the issues I have with the touch product will be fixed in an upcoming revision.
I find I almost never read on an iPad. The resolution is simply too low for good typography. I anxiously await the retina-display iPad which hopefully will arrive imminently.
On the iPhone I use Flipboard most frequently. But I also use plain ‘ole mobile Safari quite a bit, too. I access Techmeme half-a-dozen times a day, having it bookmarked and on the first screen of my iPhone. I find the Techmeme mobile site is a near perfectly curated quick-dip into tech news.
Kindle is for consuming books (and particularly for those kinds of books I feel the need to highlight/notate). iPhone is for news. Physical books are for art, design and photography books, or for the rare piece of fiction not available digitally.
I read mainly at home or in coffee shops. I don’t have a commute.
If you could move one feature of paper books to digital books, what would that be?
A better sense of edges; distance traveled.
Can you recall the moment you fell in love with reading?
Always. It’s like asking the moment I fell in love with breathing. :-)
I was lucky to have a mother who was an elementary school teacher and as such was obsessed with books. I’ve been reading something for as long as I have memory (starting with variations on the Bible, Dick and Jane, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, etc). The first time I thought — wow, OK, so this is how you imagine another world — was when I was nine, in fourth grade, reading Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. As a child I was obsessed with gore and horror (as is the wont of young American boys) and was pulled to King for those reasons. But The Gunslinger had none of that, and yet I couldn’t stop re-reading it.
Has reading become more social for you?
A little bit. Hardly as much as those of us watching this space have expected. Amazon.kindle.com is just sitting there, waiting to be exploited. I’d love to poke my head into Amazon HQ and find out what, exactly, they’re planning on doing with that.
I find I struggle with other “social” reading applications because they require excessive amount of work to get the books into their system. I am tremendously lazy. If the social component of reading doesn’t happen seamlessly with my Kindle habits, it’s very unlikely I’ll engage it regularly.
The most “social” reading experience I’ve had recently was at the MacDowell Colony. I had wonderful conversations with novelists and artists every day, and every day I’d have a list of five new books to read. At night I’d go back to my cabin and check for them on Kindle. I’d grab one and stay up all night reading it. Then I’d re-engage the community the next day, get more book recommendations, and so on. God, what a nourishing cycle that was.
I’ve had no such experience digitally.
Do you often annotate what you’re reading? Why? How has this changed over time, with the advent of new technology?
More highlight than annotate. I then go back over highlights later and use them as jumping points for longer discussions. As I’m reading I want any engagement with the text to be as lightweight as possible. I’m very cognizant of disruptions to the reading process and try to avoid them.
How has it changed over time? I feel like highlighting now has a measurable return — I get a personalized cliff notes of the book (again, on kindle.amazon.com). I find I’m much more likely to go over digital highlights than physical ones simply because of the hyper-simplicity of searching them in digital spaces.
How does highlighting create longer discussions? Do you share them with people, or are they for your own benefit?
Right now they’re just for my benefit. Mainly because there isn’t yet a great interface/network into which my social graph is plugged to generate discussion around them. That said — they often end up as quotes in my essays or blog posts and the discussion emerges from there, albeit then far from the original source.
I know that you’re working on your own writing — how does what you’re reading, and your highlighting process, help you with your work?
It’s a reminder. I often scribble down in my notebook a particular passage as I come across it and digitally highlight it. Then, later, I can pop into kindle.amazon.com or Findings and search for the quote I scribbled. Mainly, though, I use the highlights to refresh my memory after having made it through a book once. They’re anchors of my interests, which may inspire additional re-readings of specific chapters.
How do you see reading evolving in the years to come?
My hope is for even longer batteries; I don’t want ever think about charging my reading device. More responsive e-ink (although I wonder where the responsiveness/quickness asymptote may lie and fear that we are rapidly approaching it).
But more generally in terms of the act of reading? I hope not much changes. It’s not broken. At least not for standard fiction/non-fiction books. Children’s books are evolving into interesting places. But then again, we’re constantly redefining the edges of the things we can call a digital “book”. Are these children’s book applications even books anymore?
How do you think publishing might evolve? How could publishing better serve the needs of the changing reading process?
It’s already evolving. Smaller operations are, for example, making money! Especially off of independently (or, pejoratively, ‘vanity’) published books. Trust me — that’s quite a change. :-)
I’m pretty sure all the founders and authors of the tiny imprint A Book Apart get around NYC in private helicopters. Or, OK, maybe not private helicopters but certainly hover cars. Or at the very least, fancy boots.
Nick Carr had a nice post about digital/physical bundles recently. I think that’s an under-served aspect of the reading process — giving digital away for ‘free’ with physical book purchases. Do that and you help embed some awareness of the experiential differences between the mediums into the consumer package.
I wonder if books will ever go the subscription route. Amazon is pushing in that direction (certain free book checkouts for Prime customers, for example). I used to think it was inevitable but then again — how many books a month do you read? For most people I suspect it’s a very small number. I.e., It might be hard to justify a $9.99/month subscription rate if you’re only reading one book a month. Still, the idea of a Spotify-like model — everyone has access to every piece of media — has interesting implications on sharing/gifting/excerpting/etc.
If, for example, you know everyone has access to every book (the Spotify model) then you can start to point people to chapters (this works particularly well for non-fiction). The innards of the books become much more accessible (as opposed to just the highlights captured somewhere externally — Amazon’s bizarro floating web netherworld in which highlights live, for example) and that would, I believe, make them feel a little more malleable. Good or bad? Who knows. Certainly curious.
Kindle previews sort of gets us a pinkie toe into this world. I know I Kindle preview like a madman. I assume everyone else does, too. A book looks even mildly interesting? Dump it into Kindle as a preview! We’re sorta turning into book squirrels, acquiring a variety of nuts to dig into in the cold, lonely winter months.