Readability + Kindle + Something Else

I really like my Kindle. Beyond all of the more tangible/advertised benefits it has, the most important thing it’s done for me is that I’ve been reading more since I started using it.

I also really like Readability, I think it’s an optimistic and hopeful view of the future of content on the internet, rather than the arms race of ad blockers and the AdWords-fueled plague of content scrapers.

The fact that these two things I like can join forces is also great. I can send an article to my Kindle via Readability. If I see some long, thoughtful piece, I click two buttons and it will be there for me when I settle in for the evening. Unfortunately I don’t/can’t use this as much as I’d like for two reasons.

Lost Commentary

I find most of my new/fresh content via link-sharing sites. Starting long ago in the golden age of Slashdot, I’ve gotten into the habit of checking the comments on an article before I read it. I don’t usually read the comments, I just skim them, and get a sense of how worthwhile it is to read the article. If I see a healthy discussion, or lots of praise, it’s clearly something worth spending a few minutes on. Even if I see some well-written refutations, it can be valuable in a “know your enemy” sense. If I see something like “Here’s the original article” or “How many times will this be reposted?” then perhaps I’ll just move on.

After I’ve read the article I might go back and read those comments, or perhaps even leave one. With the Kindle/Readability combo, I can’t do that. Blog posts will come through with their own comments, but for whatever reasons, there always seems to be better discussion offsite.

Linkability

The “premium” content sources like major magazines or newspapers rarely link off of their stories. I think this is conditioning from the print era, but it actually plays well to this offline system. If an author talks about another website he’ll probably include the relevant details in the article, or quote it, or include a screenshot.

Blogs, however, are chock-full of links, often without context, sometimes just for humor, but sometimes as an essential part of the article. Very few blog posts are actually viable in a vacuum. I have a special folder in Google Reader called “droid” which are blogs that generally don’t do this, and are good for reading when I have idle time (via my phone, hence the name) and don’t want to deal with links.

Something Else

I’d like to have some way to read an article or post offline, that can pull in these other sources. Perhaps a “send to kindle” that actually generates an ebook with the article as the first chapters and comments from my favorites collated into other chapters. Or perhaps a Kindle app that can do this and stay updated. What I don’t want is a mobile OS-style app that pops open browser windows, as that’s an entirely different use case. A “send back to computer” would be useful for stories that require switching back to browse mode.

TLDR: Sometimes I just want to read, not browse.

Books as Clutter

Like the culture at large, I’m moving from physical media to digital. I’m slowly getting rid of almost all paper documents via my scanner. I haven’t bought a CD in years. I’ve never been a collector of movies. I haven’t had a roll of film developed since the early 90s. Our printer isn’t even usually hooked up, and when it is it’s usually to sign-and-scan a contract or something, as I haven’t found a great replacement for that yet.

Even more than the digital conversion, I don’t even bother with much physical media. Files are backed up to online services like S3 or Rackspace via Jungledisk. I have some 1TB external drives for peace of mind and Verizon’s inevitable billing errors, but never burn anything to DVD or CD.

I kept all of my old CDs, because I wasn’t comfortable with throwing out full-quality versions of something. There is FLAC, but at the time I switched a few years ago I wasn’t happy with the FLAC-encoding tools so I went with 256k VBR MP3 files, and figured I’d re-encode them again someday and then be able to toss the discs. This argument does’t make a ton of sense given that I now pay for degraded copies of new music, but that’s a little psychology I’ll put off analyzing.

Books, however, are tough for me. I’ve been using a Kindle for a while, and love it, as do most who have one. I look at my bookshelf and think “this doesn’t really need to be here”. I’ve tossed a number of books, but I pick up an old Choose Your Own Adventure book and the innumerable hours I spent reading and re-reading them comes back to me. The thought of throwing it away is unsettling.

I will probably never even read these books again. I’m not sure if my potential future kids would bother with them, but the sentimentality runs too deep. So I keep them, and even my minimalist girlfriend probably understands. It’s not like I have thousands of them, there’s probably 100 books I can’t toss.

Some books I keep because technology just hasn’t caught up to them yet. Cookbooks, picture books, and so on. These will probably go eventually, I end up tossing a few each time I look through the shelves. The sentimental books that are signed by the author or were gifts I keep too, I don’t see a real clutter issue there either, and again, I don’t have too many of these.

The quandry comes with new books. These books have no sentimental value yet, nor will they ever, and I think that’s part of the trouble. The part of me that wants to move into the future, to be more mobile, more organized, more free of physical possessions has not yet found a decisive victory over the nerd who did a book drive for his Eagle project and spent those precious half-days of school lost in the annex at the Ames Free Library.

I’ve always looked at books as some strange kind of investment. I spend $10 on a book, and read it. I can read it again years later, or give it to someone else, there’s some residual value, (not monetary, selling books is hardly worth the trouble IMO). But now I click “buy it now” and I still realize what is arguably the real value of the book, yet I have nothing to put on my shelf and page through from time to time. Nothing to jog my memory when I see it, or spark a conversation when someone else sees it. Nothing I can hand to a friend and say “you really need to read this”.

I’m not even that concerned with Amazon going away or revoking my access to these books, while that would be unfortunate, I can always buy them again somewhere else. Physical books can be destroyed or stolen too, probably even more easily than e-books. Nor am I too concerned with the privacy issues, although I do recognize that lack of concern is a privilege not everyone has. The idea of an oppressive government “burning” or suppressing a book is real as well, but I think computers are so numerous now that this knowledge will find a way to survive. One small hard drive can hold literally millions of books, I’m sure at least one copy will survive.

Unfortunately this isn’t a very constructive post, as I don’t think there is an actual solution to this. I guess this is more of a eulogy. It’s a problem faced by most generations that see the things they grew up valuing being devalued, and it stings for someone who, if you asked him anywhere from age 5 to 15, probably would have said the most valuable/important thing he owned was his book collection.