The act of reading has not changed much since the tablets of Babylon. If a Babylonian merchant walked into a Starbucks and saw us reading self-help books on Kindles, he might, in that moment, relax. For we were just like him. We both sit around drinking hot beverages silently reading our tablets. But this semblance of familiarity would leave as soon as he walks across the street or scrolls our shiny iPhone. For him, our cars and computers would be indistinguishable from magic. But he would understand our reading.
Some things never change (and rightly so). I wouldn't want technology to change the convivial atmosphere of a loud dinner table or a deep breath of mountain air in the back country. Modifying these would be unneccesary. But should we leave reading alone? Is reading so sacred that we cannot revisit our approaches towards it?
Some are beginning to think about what reading might look like in a hundred years. In fact, the device you are reading this on is a start. In a decade, we could be browsing infinite libraries within virtual reality. Eventually, we might eschew reading entirely, consuming information through neural implants. Would that be right?
So it seems like the world will attempt to “make reading better with technology”. But without principles to ground this exploration, we will be lost. We must first ask ourselves what makes a good reader, and what makes for a good reading experience. After, we can then ask if our current reading technology enables a good reading experience, that is, if our technology like books, libraries, schools, e-ink readers, paper, dictionaries, and pencils, enable "good readers". If we develop principles, we could evaluate and critique new trends in reading technologies.
We are not the first to ask these questions. To name a few, see Johnson, Woolf, and Bloom’s conception of a “Common Reader”, or “How to Read a Book” by Adler and van Buren. But here, we will start with a simple list of four rules from Vladimir Nabakov. In his short essay “Good Readers and Good Writers” he writes:
The good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense.
Let us put aside imagination for now, focusing on the latter three. If we agree with Nabakov, then to be a good reader it is important to have a memory, it is important to have a dictionary and it is important to have some artistic sense. I’ll also throw own more principle into the mix from the great political scientist Herbert Simon. This one may feel self-evident in the age of smartphones:
Attention is scarce, so it must be preserved
That is, the tools we build to assist readers, if we choose to do so, should not distract them. We must preserve attention. Maybe our current tools are enough to create good readers. But I doubt it.
The following proof-of-concepts represent the beginning of a project to build "Nabakovian" tools for reading.
We need a Dictionary
Why do we need a dictionary? It is antiquated to use a physical dictionary nowadays, they are bulky, hard to come by, and slower than a simple search on a smart device. But even the best dictionaries on smart devices come with drawbacks. We often need to get *away* from our laptops and smartphones when we are reading, because these tools bring us incredible amounts of distraction. Twitter, chatGPT, messages, all are great in their own time, but they can and will torpedo a reading session.
This project asks: What if we made our room a dictionary? Would this help us use this ever-important tool, while preserving our attention?
We need a Memory
Why do I always forget what I've read? We read so much and recall so little! While it is probably not important to remember *everything* from a book, I think we could agree that it would be good to remember the book's most poignant scense and deepest points. Or even just one or two facts. But books aren't really built for that, you have to do all of the remembering yourself. Nielsen and Matuschak make a strong case against books in their “Timeful Texts”, and they propose a possible solution: the Mnemonic Medium, a new type of book that utilizes clever techniques from memory practices. They give an example of this new technology in "Quantum Country”, a new type of textbook.
But I like the book. I especially like a physical book: even with advances in technology, be it through VR, AR, or Mnemonic Mediums, I'm not sure I’ll ever give up the act of curling up in a nook with some worn-out yellow-paged book!
And often, with the intent to remember, I will underline or highlight passages in physical books. But later I'll completely forget to write up notes, or excerpt the passages I was so moved by.
This project asks: What if we could design a magic highlighter that when used on a physical book would automagically record the highlighted text and index those highlights for later use in some digital system? I hope that such a system would enable us to remember what we've found interesting in a book.
We need an Artistic Sense
I am beginning to explore tools to further develop one's artistic sense, see this Amuse-Bouche. I think Nabakov would say in order to do this, simply focus one's attention on a couple of great texts, and the taste will follow.
This is just a sketch of what a couple of Nabakovian tools might look like. In the future I will experiment with other frameworks (Adlerian tools for reading?) and hopefully build real products to ameliorate some of these real concerns. Thanks to Charles Chamberlain for discussions on this and many other topics!For updates on this please consider subscribing