I’ve seen several articles lately that offer tips for those whose New Year’s resolutions include reading more books. A common thread: suggestions for what to read, or who to follow to get ideas what to read.

That’s not the problem I have.

I have stacks of books I want to read. The problem is time, not inclination. The problem, I’ve started to realize, is that I want to set aside large blocks of time to read properly, but I don’t have large blocks of time that don’t have something else that needs to be done. That, and overcoming inertia when I’m already distracted by the internet, where all the articles and streams are more suited for short blocks of time (but include a hook at the end to keep you going).

What I need to do is just grab a few pages here and there when I can. It may not be as satisfying as sitting down with a book for an hour or two, but at least I’ll get through it.

Usability researchers like Jakob Nielsen have long contended that people read differently online than on paper: they tend to skim, follow links, and jump off quickly if they don’t find what they want. (Rather than being judgmental, Nielsen simply advises that you tailor your online writing to this.)

Now the Washington Post reports that people are observing a spillover effect, with online skimming habits interfering with concentration when it comes to more in-depth reading…even when reading print.

Sadly, the article mostly distinguishes between two modes of reading:

  • Online skimming of casual articles and social media on screens.
  • Serious reading of novels and in-depth content in print.

There’s nothing to distinguish, for instance, reading on a dedicated e-reader (without the siren call of Facebook or hyperlinks) from reading on your laptop. Nor is there anything to distinguish casually reading on your phone’s tiny screen from reading at your computer, or sitting on the couch and reading on a book-sized tablet.

A tablet and a breaking paperback.

Personally, I’ve found display size to be the biggest factor in maintaining attention. I get tired of reading on my phone, and I tend to skim on a desktop or laptop, but a handheld tablet (I have a Nexus 7, which is close to the size of a paperback book) works out about right. I’d much rather read a long article on that tablet than on a computer, even with the browser window sized for optimal column width.

So yeah, it’s much easier to concentrate on something long in a book than on a desktop or cell phone…but an ebook reader or a tablet is a lot closer.

There are still tradeoffs: My Les Misérables re-read changed drastically when I switched from a paperback to my tabletnot because I couldn’t concentrate on long passages, but because my method of notetaking changed. My reading actually sped up, but my commentary slowed down. (It did ultimately take me longer than I expected to finish the book, but only because I had so many other books I wanted to read, and ended up taking breaks and reading them instead.)

The main problem I do have with a tablet isn’t continuing to read, but starting to read. Even without a wifi signal, it’s tempting to catch up on email, or saved articles in Pocket, and before I know it, I’m done with lunch and I haven’t even opened the book I’d planned on reading.

(Via Phi Beta Kappa)

I’ve been using Pocket lately to offload “Hey, this looks interesting” articles from times when I really should be doing something else to times when I have, well, time.

  • It syncs a copy of the article to each mobile device, which means I can see something in the morning, save it to Pocket, then read it on my tablet at lunch.
  • Feedly talks to it easily. I’ve even linked it up with IFTTT so that tapping “Save for Later” on the tablet will add an article to Pocket.
  • Speaking of IFTTT, I’ve also set it up so that saving an article as a favorite in Pocket also adds it to Delicious.
  • The Android app will accept shares even if there’s no network connection, then sync up when it’s online. That means I can look over a newsletter in Gmail at lunch, save the links that look interesting, and archive the email. Then I can read the article at work or at home…or the next time I’m out somewhere, after it’s synced.

I’ve also started using the text-to-speech feature to listen to articles in the car while driving to and from work. The voice is fairly decent despite the usual flat tones and lack of natural rhythms, but there are a few oddities that take getting used to.

  • # is always read as “hash.” This makes it really odd for comics articles, which frequently talk about issue numbers. “Batman Hash 123” just sounds wrong.
  • Italics are…always…emphasis, and presented by…pausing…rather than changing tone. This makes it…awkward…for anything involving lots of titles.
  • It parses words, rather than using a dictionary, and can’t always figure out whether initials should be read individually or pronounced as a word. This usually works fine, but occasionally leads to phrases like “tah-kay-down notice,” “link-uh-din” or “pohs terminal.” On the other hand, it figured out “I-triple-E,” so I imagine it’s got a dictionary for special cases.

It’s been a month since I finished re-reading Les Miserables, and I’m still working on finishing the commentary. I’ve been making an effort to include actual reactions, not just summary, which is one of the problems I’ve had since switching to the kindle and relying on highlights instead of writing my own notes as I go.

I’m making progress. In the past week I’ve added the following three sections covering 100 pages from 883 to 984 two weeks I’ve added the following sections covering about 200 pages. UPDATE (12/31): I’m finished!

  • A Revolting Development – Barricade day arrives, the city really does erupt (this barricade is a small part of a bigger rebellion), and Gavroche isn’t taking things seriously.
  • (From) Drinking to Revolution – Grantaire, Laigle and Joly spend the day in a tavern ignoring the revolt, so when the rest of the students show up, they figure, hey, let’s build our barricade here! Also, Javert isn’t the only infiltrator, and Marius tries to figure out the best way to die.
  • Hey Barricade, Who’s in Charge Here? The first attack and deaths. Marius arrives, guns blazing. (Who knew he could shoot?) Eponine dies. Valjean finds out that Cosette’s been seeing someone, and he’s not happy about it.
  • Barricades of Future Past (Plus Cannon Geekery) – A look at the 1948 revolt, sending fathers home who don’t want to go, geeking out over the army’s new cannon, and Valjean’s marksmanship.
  • Passing Peak Ammunition – The barricade manages to hold out, but loses Gavroche and their star prisoner.
  • Last Stand – Storming the barricade and tavern.
  • What a Wonderful Smell You’ve Discovered – Valjean carries Marius out of the war zone through the sewers.
  • Jumper – Javert doesn’t handle cognitive dissonance very well.
  • Don’t Worry, Be Happy – Marius comes out of his coma, and he and Cosette can finally be together. What could go wrong?
  • This is the End – The wedding is a new beginning for Marius and Cosette, but it’s the beginning of the end for Jean Valjean. Fortunately, Thenardier tries to blackmail the happy couple.

What’s left?

  • 75 pages of the barricade battle.
  • I’ve already written up the flight through the sewers and Javert’s suicide.
  • I’ve written about 75% of the last 90 pages (out of order, so I can’t just put numbers on it): Marius’ convalescence, the wedding, the blackmail attempt, Valjean’s separation from Cosette and his death.

So I’ve got about 100 pages to cover, probably in 5 chunks, and just over a week before the end of the year. I think I actually have a chance of making this goal!

Les Miserables Book Falling ApartLast week I finished re-reading Les Misérables. I’ve been working on this off and on for most of the year, taking breaks to read other books along the way.

I don’t feel finished yet, though, because I set myself the challenge of commenting on the whole thing as well, and I’m way behind on that. The main problem is that when I switched from carrying around the rapidly disintegrating copy of the book to reading on the tablet, I also switched from writing notes on my phone to highlighting passages in the Kindle app, with the idea that I’d write my commentary later. You can build on digital notes. With highlights, you have to do all your composition new, so my commentary started taking longer to write…and the longer it went, the less fresh those chapters were in my memory, and the more my commentary began to resemble summaries.

I did manage to write two commentaries right within days of finishing the chapters: the sewers, and Javert’s suicide. But I can’t post them until I get to that point.

Today I finished a new section of commenatry. This covers Marius and Cosette’s six weeks of secret meetings in her garden (during which Hugo is very insistent that nothing is going on), Eponine staring down hardened criminals with an awesome “You think I’m scared of you?” speech, Marius trying — and failing — to reconcile with his estranged grandfather, and what they’re all up to in the days (or in Marius’ case, the daze) before the revolt.

That brings me up to page 882 out of 1201 (not counting the appendices, which I’ve already covered). There’s about 180 pages to cover, the entire barricade sequence, before I can post the sewer commentary I’ve already written. I’m no longer certain I’ll be able to finish it all by the end of the year, but I’ve at least got a shot. Um, so to speak.

Read on for the new commentary, Over the Edge.