Aesthetically, I prefer print to most digital text. The Kindle’s screen is crap at displaying photographs or charts, and while its e-ink text is easier on the eyes than an iPad, it’s harder on the eyes than a book. The gap only grows when it comes to reading most articles online: Magazines are still laid out with a care and thoughtfulness that even the best digital publishers can’t touch (except Vox, of course).
And yet I do virtually all my reading digitally, and for a simple reason: My memory is terrible. I forget 90 percent of what I read about 90 minutes after I read it. The Kindle’s highlights and notes are invaluable to me: I can find any passage that caught my eye, or any thought I cared enough to write down, anywhere that I happen to have an internet connection. Similarly, I use the online storage system Evernote to save passages or full articles I happen across online and may want to refer back to.
These storage solutions make everything I read more useful to me after I read it. My library goes from being inaccessible to being a sprawling digital memory. But both storage solutions are, to be honest, terrible. Amazon’s Kindle site feels like it was built in 2001: It stores your highlights and notes in the least useful ways possible, its search function is garbage, its user interface seems designed to frustrate, and it is extremely, exceptionally slow. Evernote’s text clipper is better, but it doesn’t work on my phone, which is where I end up doing a lot of my reading.
But all that’s in the past. I have figured out how to read online, and it is glorious.
In this, I am indebted to Diana Kimball, who developed this system for “a decent digital commonplace book system.”
Making Kindle highlights useable with Clippings.io and Evernote
It begins with Kindle. Clippings.io will export your Kindle notes and highlights in usable, searchable form — and then plug them directly into Evernote, so they’re available whenever you need them, and sortable in every way you might imagine. The difference here is profound: My Kindle highlights have gone from being available if I can remember what book they’re in to discoverable if I can simply remember any word from the highlight.
In practice, this means my relationship with highlighted passages and notes has gone from one in which I have to find them to one in which they can unexpectedly, wonderfully find me. A search for, say, “filibuster” will call up highlights and notes I wasn’t specifically looking for, and that I had actually forgotten, but that help with whatever I’m working on — and that sometimes prove to be the thing I should have been looking for in the first place.
Using Instapaper premium and Evernote to save article snippets
A lot of what I read, however, isn’t books. It’s news articles, blog posts, magazine features. I’ve long wanted a cleaner way to save the best ideas, facts, and quotes I come across. Now I have one.
Instapaper — which lets you save any article you find online and read it later on any device you choose — recently added a highlight function. The free version limits the number of highlights you can have to some absurdly low number. But if you pay for the premium service — $29.99 a year — it unlocks unlimited highlights.
That’s helpful, but there’s not much you can do with the highlights on Instapaper. But Kimball created an If That Then This recipe that automatically exports Instapaper highlights into Evernote. So now anything I highlight in an article — at least an article on Instapaper — is saved into the same searchable, sortable space that my book highlights inhabit. So basically anything I read in any digital format can be highlighted, and those highlights can be saved and searched. It’s wonderful.
But there’s one exception.
The final frontier: PDFs
Seriously, PDFs are the worst. Jakob Nilsen details their many, many sins:
The usability problems that PDF files cause on websites or intranets are legion:
Linear exposition. PDF files are typically converted from documents that were intended for print, so the authors wouldn’t have followed the guidelines for Web writing. The result? A long text that takes up many screens and is unpleasant and boring to read.
Jarring user experience. PDF lives in its own environment with different commands and menus. Even simple things like printing or saving documents are difficult because standard browser commands don’t work.
Crashes and software problems. While not as bad as in the past, you’re still more likely to crash users’ browsers or computers if you serve them a PDF file rather than an HTML page.
Breaks flow. You have to wait for the special reader to start before you can see the content. Also, PDF files often take longer time to download because they tend to be stuffed with more fluff than plain Web pages.
Orphaned location. Because the PDF file is not a Web page, it doesn’t show your standard navigation bars. Typically, users can’t even find a simple way to return to your site’s homepage.
Content blob. Most PDF files are immense content chunks with no internal navigation. They also lack a decent search, aside from the extremely primitive ability to jump to a text string’s next literal match. If the user’s question is answered on page 75, there’s close to zero probability that he or she will locate it.
Text fits the printed page, not a computer screen. PDF layouts are often optimized for a sheet of paper, which rarely matches the size of the user’s browser window. Bye-bye smooth scrolling. Hello tiny fonts.
And yet a lot of what I read is in PDF format. Academic papers tend to come in PDF form, as do think tank papers (though good on the Urban Institute for trying to break its addiction). And while I can highlight (some) PDFs, and even upload them to Evernote, I haven’t found a way to make that text reliably searchable, usable, and useful in the way I have with books and articles. If anyone out there has a good solution, I’d love to hear about it.