How to read a book now

Sometime in the late 1970s, I was sitting in the Rare Books Room of the Cambridge University library.  I had just come back from lunch.  

I was reading a leather bound book published in 1588, and all of a sudden and for the very briefest moment, I imagined myself immensely fat, covered in grease, and sitting on a groaning wooden chair that seemed ready to burst.

And then the sensation was gone.  If you are inclined to this sort of thing, and I am not, you would say that I made psychic contact with the person who owned this book, that I was for a split second an Elizabethan.

I don’t think this.  At all.  I recall the moment, because for all our differences, this book owner and I had a lot in common.  At least when it came to the activity called reading.  We held something made out of paper in our hands and gazed upon the page.  We may have been separated by half a millennium and differences of every imaginable kind, but when it came to books, we were one.

And now even that has passed.  Sometime last week I started to read books in a new way.  I buy them from Amazon.  I have them installed on my iPad.  i underline and makes notes as I go.  These notes are then transferred to the Amazon site, where I can visit them anytime and add comments.  (It is a little bit as if the book falls away.  The focus of my attention is now the highlights and notes.)

It’s truly mind boggling.  We can go to and they are all there.  Best of all, all this content is clippable so it can be ported it to Zotero (highly recommended) or a research document or a blog post.   

My Elizabethan pal, the very fat one, would be thunderstruck at this development.  I am hoping for another moment of transportation so I can tell him all about it.  

8 thoughts on “How to read a book now

  1. Bud Caddell


    Thanks for the post. You’ve caught me in this moment where I’m currently researching my first book and therefore reading books like never before. I’ve stuck to the paper, flammable, form mostly due to my preference for taking notes in the actual book. My fear is that clipping (a la kindle) wouldn’t mentally register the way jotting down notes, re-entering them via Google Doc might. But I’m not sure. I’m also weighing which device I’ll purchase to research formats for the book. Did you have a Kindle before the iPad? If so, what are your thoughts regarding the two? How much of Amazon’s catalog is available for download? I’m reading some pretty arcane textbooks on complexity science right now.

    1. Grant Post author

      Nigel, geez, what a mistake, thanks for the spot, now corrected. Best, Grant

  2. Grant

    Bud, I gave up my kindle when I got the iPad. The reading experience isn’t quite as good, but it’s plenty good enough. The good thing about the Kindle is that the screen is very still, very helpful if you are even a little dyslexic. I am amazed how much is available on Amazon. Only lazy publishers appear to be excluded.

    1. dave

      or publishers who are holding out for a different kind of deal.

      Interesting post Grant. I am just finsihing a short article on the future of manga, the iPad and bibliosexuality. Having been a public children’s librarian for ten years I saw the latter in action often enough. from the local derelict re-reading Zane Grey and literally staying in touch with himself to the plethora of variations of love in the stacks. Ive also spent a professional career observing the incredible veracity that mulched, dried and rolled tree bark gives to anything man can think to send through a printer.

      I guess my problem, and I openly admit it could e a function of generational unwillingnes to change is the “snippiness’ of the iPad, Kindle type experiences. way to easy to lose context and only “read the good bits”.

      so my question is … REALLY ? is it an experience that is changing the way we read, not the format we read it on. No doubt we are embarking on a period where whole literally new forms will come into being just as say the develoopment of cheap newsprint allowed for the penny newspaper and the rise of the episodic novels of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes … which is exciting. but then I look at the simple changes that have happened as manga or novelletes invaded the mobile phone early this decade in Japan and the development of not only new story lines but whole new forms of the genre. The classicist now bemoans that with old formats under threat the reading of manga changes and the old interpreations will be lost ( sounds like my sone and I talking about how reading Cliff Notes podcasts is different from the experience of Othelo read as a whole ).

      ah well i am off to catch with Wired on iPad .. cheers

      1. Grant

        David, great comment, it’s almost like I am on the first pass putting together the “book” I want to read on the second. As to the Wire, did you see that Simon won a genius award yesterday. (And now of course he has to give it back for Tweem.) Thanks. Love “veracity that mulched, dried and rolled tree bark gives to anything man can think to send through a printer”!

  3. Sheila Germain

    Timely, indeed. So much of the next few years of my life will be research-intense. I’m a marginating and highlighting maniac when it comes to my texts, but I am lousy about transferring any of these insights over to any organized repository. It is a habit I’m working to change and it is changing the way I read. Especially frustrating at this point in my research is the amount of texts I’m having to borrow from the library, and therefore, I’m denied my neon-marker-post-it-tabbed-black-pen margin editorial – apparently, they frown on such things. In searching for my specific needs, I’ve noticed that many of the titles are being made available digitally through public and private library networks for “short-term” loan. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    Right now, I spend about an hour a week uploading and printing at least 100 pages of required text in PDF from various sources. I saw the immediate use I would have for an iPad based on this ritual in itself – and that was just to be able to read the PDFs comfortably, wherever and with some possible sustainability. Your high recommendation on Zotero is a VERY exciting addition to the post. If Zotero gives me a place to organize the mountains of stuff I’ve highlighted and commented on in my research, then it not only changes the way I read, but the course of my entire learning experience. Excellent post, Grant.

    Now…to get my hands on an iPad.

  4. Hayden

    It feels inevitable that as reading machines continue to improve in quality, what is now printed matter will shift more and more to electronic format–driven in part by the savings available from not having to do a publishing run for a printed book.

    At the same time, the book has been a straightforward user interface for hundreds of years. It’s easy to buy used books that are 30 or 40 years old. I do wonder whether the current specificity of digital formats–and the lack of legibility of that data without machines to interpret it–mean the lifetime of a purchased work (or even of, say, a photo snapshot we take for our own pleasure) will be much less than in the past. If I buy an e-book now on Amazon, will I still be able to use it in 20 years?

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