The Electronic Book

I was looking forward to the release of Blio, an e-reader designed by one of my favorite tech heroes, Ray Kurzweil. It was a disappointment. I couldn’t speed read; I couldn’t highlight; I couldn’t make mind maps or outlines. In fact, I could do very few of the things that make me able to learn from published works. My response was, “What’s the big deal?”

Somebody besides me must have a vision and tools for e-readers, right? How do I find these people?

What’s reading about, anyway?

To me, reading is the act of getting information by focusing my mind and vision on works published in my language (English, I think), along with the associated charts, graphs and illustrations, whether this is in electronic form or printed material.  Every day we are bombarded with information; brochures, books, magazines, websites, forums and more. We read these things, but much of what we read is a waste of time and effort. When we do read something that is important, it takes too much effort to organize it.

We saw an article on slashdot a few weeks ago, now we want to read it again and it’s not there.

There is a website listed on that article we were reading at the doctor’s office, but we didn’t write it down.

I’ve barely gotten familiar with Windows 7 and now Microsoft is pushing Windows 8. How do I educate myself on the new technology so I can better serve my clients and customers?

I need a break. Where did I put that book I was reading? (Oh, yeah. It’s not here. It’s next to my bed. Do I really want to buy and start another book?)

We read all the time, but sometimes, when the need to read requires focus, attention and learning, the right circumstances elude us. Enter The Electronic Book!

There are different types of reading. What type should The Electronic Book support? Well it doesn’t matter much today because the current batch of e-readers, whether computer based or handheld, doesn’t support much of anything except “straight reading” as opposed to “interactive reading” or “speed reading” or “studying” or “reviewing” or just about anything else.

Story: ‘Bout fifty-‘leven years ago (in the early 70’s), I used to frequent a restaurant called Sammy D’s in Minneapolis, in the Dinkytown area near the University of Minnesota campus. One frequent customer was a fella named David Feldshuh, who, at that time, was the Assistant Director of the Guthrie Theatre. One day I observed David holding a sheaf of papers and running his hand down the page, then moving on to the next one. I had seen this motion on TV in advertisements for the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics Institute, so I asked David if he was speed reading. He said yes, and then explained to me that it was one of the most valuable courses he had ever taken. One thing he said, “I was skeptical, but I did it anyway. Then one day I ran my hand down a page and I knew what it said.”

I was skeptical myself, but emboldened by David’s endorsement I signed up for the Evelyn Wood course. At my first session they gave me a test to see how fast I could read. It was not a challenging test; it was a selection from John Steinbeck. I scored 1200 words per minute with 90% comprehension. The instructor asked me two questions: “Have you ever taken a speed reading course?” (Yes, in the Army.) “Was it an Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics course?” (No.) Then she said, “We guarantee that if you do what we ask, at the end of this course you will be reading at least three times as fast with no loss in comprehension.”

Wow! I’m gonna be a genius!

It’s not quite that simple. I actually had to finish the course, and I wasn’t used to finishing anything. I had to take time out twice a day to practice for 20 minutes. I hid out and read books upside-down while running my hand down the page reciting, “Mary had a little lamb.” (I didn’t want anyone to think I was as crazy as I felt.) The goal was to substitute “subvocalization” (the little voice in your head that you hear when you’re reading) with a visual experience. And then, about a month into the program, I ran my hand down the page and I knew what it said.

Somewhere around the 5th week I reached 3500 words per minute with 100% comprehension on light reading like Steinbeck. By the end of my 8-week course I reached over 8000 words per minute with 90% comprehension on the same quality material. Technical material took longer, and required “layered reading” (Which means you go through it more than once at different speeds), but even that was absorbed at a rate of 1500 to 2000 words per minute. I was breezing through books that would have intimidated me two months previously. One of my classmates, a Chemist from Pakistan, was absorbing technical material at over 10,000 words per minute. (He read regular prose at only about 1100 words per minute.)  Not only was I reading faster, but I was remembering more. The course taught methods for note-taking and review that increased my understanding. It was well worth finishing the course.

So I learned speed reading. Did I use it? Lots. But then I’d get lazy and go back to my old way of reading. Then I’d get ambitious and go through the drills to get my speed back up. I even took the program over again a couple of times. (The Evelyn Wood course would allow you retake the program free as often as you like if you had your “Red Book” of exercises and lessons. I’ve lost my Red Book sometime in the last 40 years, but I wonder if they would still let me take the program?) It’s like my typing skills; If I don’t practice I get slower.

Shortly after I took the course I ran into a graduate student in Education from the U of M who was doing a study that “proved” a person could read no more than about 240 words per minute. I guess it depends on your definition of reading.

Later on I found, “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler. This ruined my satisfaction with speed reading because Adler claimed a person didn’t really understand what was read unless the reader could reconstruct the author’s words exactly. This is a different proposition from rendering the author’s ideas in your own words. I slogged my way through Adler’s book and learned how to identify the structure of the writing; how to identify the topic sentence and the supporting sentences; how to construct arguments from the author’s ideas and find the strengths and weaknesses. There is a place for speed reading in the pre-reading phase of Adler’s methods, but the rest of it sacrifices reading speed in favor of detailed accuracy. I was raised to never write in a book, but Adler suggested making the book your own by making notes in the margins and underlining. (One way to highlight a book without harm is to use a pastel pencil or thin chalk pastel which can be erased by rubbing it with a chamois or micro-fiber cloth. I use post-it notes for my notes. Guilt rules, and I still can’t comfortably write in a book.)

So, OK, now I own at least two methods of efficient reading, and neither of them works well on e-readers.

The term “e-reader” seems to refer to both the software used to read digital presentation and the device you slip into your briefcase or purse to read the digital presentation. Probably the most well-known e-reader is Adobe Reader which is free from and used on almost every computer at some point to read PDF files. Interestingly enough, Adobe Reader has a lot of the features that other readers don’t. You can display menus that allow you to highlight, copy paste into notes, do note-taking and much, much more. It is inconvenient to use the mouse and keyboard all the time, but it is an acceptable way to read following Mortimer Adler’s approved method.

I still prefer printed books, though, because there are fundamental differences in the way I read the book and the e-readers’ capabilities.

Take “pre-reading” for example: You get a new textbook, press it open a few pages at a time to make it lay flat, then flip through the pages taking note of the copyright date, the author’s credentials, the outline of the book from the Table of Contents, the illustrations and progression of the steps needed to acquire the knowledge presented in the book. (You really do all that, don’t you?) You make a few notes about WIIFM (What’s in it for me) and put together some sort of goal that reading the book will advance. You quickly go to each chapter and read the first two paragraphs, the topic sentence of each paragraph, and the last two paragraphs plus the summary. Then you make more notes about your expected progress through the book. How do you do that with an e-book?

Maybe I’ve highlighted stuff that stood out for me and I want to review it later. Will an e-book let me go through my highlights directly?

Each paragraph should have a topic sentence, and each topic sentence is supported by proof, information or example (Statement/PIE). Can I highlight these in different colors and add them to mind maps or outlines?

I typically make cards for reviewing my subject matter. Why can’t my e-reader create review cards automatically from my highlights mixed in with what the author thinks should be reviewed?

My LINUX system has a couple of substitutes for Adobe Reader and a feature I use frequently is the auto-scroll that allows me to read the text at a comfortable speed without having to click on the page arrow or hit the space bar. I’ve tried different readers on different LINUX desktop configurations, and the best was Okular (for the KDE desktop), but it is no longer supported. Again, using the mouse and keyboard interferes with efficient reading. E-readers need to be OS and desktop independent.

I was discussing this article with my friend James over a quick game of chess, and he mentioned that he typically gets audio books which he re-records at a faster (3x or 4x) speed, and listens to the audio while he is reading. He says it forces him to concentrate and he learns more, while saving time. It made me think; “Why aren’t e-books published with a sync’ing audio track?” Wouldn’t that be a boon to people who need to read in a language different from their native language? As an example, wouldn’t it be great to read Robert Louis Stevenson’s books and listen to a native Scot reading it at the same time? How about Chaucer read by someone who can actually speak Old English? How about poetry recited by the author or other person with poetic sensitivity?

In short, the potential for e-books is much greater than just a presentation for printed material, and the publishers are falling short of providing a good e-book experience.

I’ve tried a number of different e-reader programs on Windows XP and Windows 7 but none them out-performed Adobe Reader. As I mentioned, I had high hopes for Blio but was greatly disappointed.

You would think that my Fujitsu T900 convertible laptop with the touch-screen capability would be an ideal platform for reading, but the apps don’t support the features I like to use. It is much easier to highlight and take notes using the stylus, but some of the other features are missing.

I’ve tried different e-reader devices like the Kindle (from Amazon) and the Nook (from Barnes and Noble) but none of them work quite right. The e-paper digital screen is still too slow and the features that could make these e-readers more useful are still missing. Actually, my T900 has better performance, but it is much heavier, more expensive and it requires more steps to set it up for reading. The most annoying thing is the e-readers that don’t include a USB port. I have a lot of my favorite reference works (like my Complete National Geographic, Encylopaedia Britannica, World Almanac, Complete Mother Earth News, etc.) on a 64GB USB drive. But the e-readers are not computers, so even if they have a USB port I can’t use them effectively because I can’t run the programs that make them useful.

Now listen up, Ray Kurzweil (and other alleged inventor/thinkers): I want you to transform the digital reading process in much the same way that DVD and BlueRay have transformed the digital movie experience.

I want a touch-screen e-reader (device) that I can run my fingers down and control the speed of the display. (The Apple version of the e-reader seems to try to keep the curser in the middle of the screen. This might be a good way to start.) Alternatively, I want an autoscroll feature that is easy to adjust without finding just the right place to put my mouse. I want feedback on the amount of material I’m absorbing; for instance, questions about the content of the chunk of material I’ve read.

Make it easy for me to pre-read books. Make the pre-reading function part of the reading process for those who want it. Let me organize my reading and set measurable goals.

I want to use my finger or stylus to highlight topic sentences, highlight supporting sentences in a different color, transfer those highlights to an outline or a mind-map, and merge different maps or outlines from different sources to create a body of knowledge. I want to be able to have the mind-map or outline take me back to the relevant text if I’m fuzzy about what it means, and I want to be able to edit notes about what I’ve read.

I want publishers to create books that include review questions, and a scheduler for scheduling the reviews. I want interactive indexes as well as interactive Tables of Content so I can go directly to information relevant to my learning. I want audio tracks sync’d with the text and, ideally, I would like those audio tracks adjustable so I could speed it up if I wanted.

If the text of my book shows a link to a web page, I want to be able to browse to that page. I want my interactive reference works to be able to work on the reader. Foreign language dictionaries with audio pronunciation would be nice.

I want a scanner that will allow me to save print content and review or re-read it later.

I want the software for these e-readers to work just as well on my touch-screen computer as it does in the e-reader.

And I want it small enough so I can pull it out of my briefcase and speed-read something like a Louis L’Amour novel during my half-hour lunch.