On reading

an opened book about Alexander the Great

We still don't read as often as we should. And enough. Reading is among the activities everyone should be involved with. This is so important, that I decided to make room for it here. You might think that it has nothing to do with web or visual design, so that doesn't belong on the blog. Actually reading has to do with every aspect of our lives, whether we notice it or not.

Our habits form when we're young. If we didn't read then, we may not know what we're missing. Later it becomes increasingly harder to change our lifestyle—we must double our efforts. There are many people, who can't even read or live in very poor countries that don't have good access to books. Initiatives like Room to Read already address this problem. Reading has to become much more widespread if we want to advance faster.

We are plagued daily by all sorts of useless information—TV realities, advertisements, awful music—that we hardly find the time to read something new and allow it to change us. We speak about life-long learning, which to me is a combination of reading, understanding and perseverance. But we fail to read every day, stopping our personal development the moment we stop reading. This is especially true for older people, many of whom think that they already know everything. That's why we constantly need to engage with new material just to keep up our curiosity level high. This curiosity is the vehicle that brings us to inspirational places.

"Thinking mode" vs. "accepting mode"

Reading puts us in active "thinking mode", as opposed to passive "accepting mode". It changes us from the inside. While reading, we actually collect ideas or dots and try to combine the pieces of information to extract the maximum meaning of it. In our brains the dots are replaced by neurons and the their connections—by synapses.

In order to preserve ideas and come back to them in the future, we might want to record the most important ones that we encounter. This way, we can ensure that we'll never lose our dots. When we stop reading, the neural connections get thinner or disappear. Studies have shown that people who actively read suffer less from Alzheimer disease and dementia.

Reading helps us and others around us. It changes our attitude towards them. We start to perceive our own small and limited world in a new way, expanding our worldview. Some people think that they should read, only if it's immediately beneficial, but it shouldn't necessarily work that way. We often forget what we read about, but we keep the dots in our subconscious mind, so we can return to them later when we discover new connections. This is when reading starts to reveal new and unknown areas—when we combine, exclude and mix things into new structures.

Reading improves the capacity for reading

The more we read, the more capacity we have to read. This is because we are able to think and process new material faster. I can't scientifically prove this, but I felt it on myself. We start to concentrate easier, the information becomes less surprising, so we can simply go through more.

Part of reading is deciding what's worth reading. If we read whole books just for the act of finishing, then we're doing something wrong. Many people prefer reading fiction books, but I seek books that could in some way touch the real world I live in, so I avoid them. We must have our own list of favorite genres.

Digital content won't kill books. Ever.

There is the notion that the digital revolution and its new devices were the reason why many traditional workplaces within the book industry disappeared. Many people have shifted to reading digital content, so the e-book reader industry has grown. Newspapers like New York Times offered subscriptions for digital content. Change is everywhere and we can't stop it.

Printed books have survived many centuries, while digital ones have to prove themselves every single day. There is no guarantee that we'll have the paper or the electricity tomorrow to support the one or another type of book. Electricity is becoming more expensive and might be the reason why people might stop using their digital devices. The today's high oil prices for example are already an obstacle for people using their cars. If we speak about the recurring use of supplies, then cars require oil, bicycles—nothing; tablets, PCs, e-book readers—electricity, books—nothing. These high-level dependencies shouldn't be underestimated. In the future we'll need to adapt the media (e.g. book) to our environmental constraints.

Digital content complements analog one, it doesn't compete with it. Many things that exist in books aren't available online, as they are subject to copyright and the reason why the author has invested time and sweat to finish and sell them in order to survive. Buyers are the actual supporters that encourage authors to write more. Online, we can only find the ideas of books, but not the actual premises behind them. Sometimes their content is even interpreted wrong. Most authors won't like to idea to make their books available for free, at least not before they become outdated. If a corporation like Google wants them to do so, this is a threat to the existence of authors. That said, Google Reader is an app I use regularly.

Redundant content

Today, digital content is more redundant than ever before. The same or similar ideas are used in different book titles. This is why it's so hard to have a quality content. Everything seems to have been said before. But if we think about it, nothing has been said. We have just plowed up the ground and we see only the surface if we don't dig deeper. The thing that bothers me most as a reader is to read something I've already read before. When authors borrow existing ideas, they risk losing their audience.

Practically everyone writes books or blog posts today, partly because it became so easy. But we also pollute the online space, which does more harm than good as we are no longer able to quickly find quality content. We are less concerned with our content's volume and the way it's complementing what's already available. "Data expands to fill the space available for storage". So we are publishing hundreds of new books (offline) and writing thousands of blog posts (online) daily, which are mostly collections of existing ideas. If we pollute our minds in the same way, it will have long-term consequences for the humanity as a whole.

Writers must become better readers. They need to make sure that everything they write has not been said before. We need less books if we want to gain more from them. Otherwise the additional value of every new one will gradually converge to zero. The more we read, the less we'll learn.

Imagine an offline catalog with a combined content that doesn't repeat itself and is accessible through an index. We have to create it. Many people need to be involved for this to happen. The longer we wait, the more junk we'll have to sift and the harder this will become. Relying only on online content will be detrimental. Technology has transformed publishing into an information overload that now slowly defeats us. This is a global task, which is exactly why we don't tackle it.

Digital vs. analog reading experience

The experience of reading on a digital device will always be worse than reading a regular book. Digital devices weren't invented to read books on them—they do many more things.

A digital book's content is repainted every time we scroll a page due to rendering, which depending on our machine and the content of the book, can be slow or negatively affect our eyes when the content is flashing. This slows down our reading. PCs also emit noise which distracts us from the content. They don't allow us to read outside on fresh air. Even if we bring our laptop or Kindle, we still prefer holding a book. A book has cover, title and personality, a laptop hides them. It can immediately become a discussion point, even among strangers.

Mobile devices like tablets or laptops are energy-bound, which means that we can read as long as the battery is alive. During the charging process of the battery, it won't be convenient to use them. Depending on where we are, we might even not be able to charge them.

Digital content is more flexible—it can be zoomed and accessed quicker through search, which is the only reason why a keyboard might be useful. Generally, it is a tool for writing, not reading. A PC does more than it needs to, which is why it isn't the best fit. Having a keyboard, mouse with a mousepad, a digital camera, trackpad, all kinds of cables etc. do nothing more than distract from the actual reading. The interface just feels wrong.

Reading regular books is more memorable. Not only because people have paid for them and therefore are emotionally invested in, but because of their tangible nature. Real books can be personalized with a gift message, digital books can't. Real books can be shared with other people as something personal, digital books can't be shared without copyright infringement.

Real books give us feedback on our progress (through the touch of the page we are currently on), which is independent of the visual feedback (the page number we see at the bottom). On a digital device we have only visual feedback, which means we have to stop reading for a moment in order to see (possibly on a scrollbar) where we are. Ink is replaced by pixels that don't smell, paper is replaced by a screen that doesn't feel. Our senses are suppressed.

Regular books have the disadvantage that they aren't readable in low light. But this might be a market opportunity for someone to invent a chemical substance of ink that emits light. I don't know exactly the principle behind the e-ink technology, but I hope that only the ink is the source of light, and not the whole screen.

We can use a marker on a real book to underline interesting content. This option may be available on a digital book too, depending on the software we use, but I doubt it to be more natural than the artist in us. In a real book we can also place a marker of where we are to come back later. This is "in-place" and therefore more intuitive. With a digital book, we have to write down the page number where we currently are and remember to keep the note ("out-of-place"), so we continue later from where we stopped.

With a normal book or a tablet device we look down while reading, and not forward as it is in the case of a normal big computer screen. This tends to reduce eyestrain, and allows us to read more faster.

A book exists forever, the life of a digital book is limited to the moment the new technology, file format etc. replaces an old one. Once we've read a digital book we forget it. A normal book exists in our library and reminds us constantly of itself.

Books are written to be sold

Books are written to be sold, not necessarily to teach us valuable things. Many authors were paid by the number of pages they write, not by the quality they deliver. In some cases this continues to be so. Many books stop suddenly when they reach page 200. This must be an alarm sign.

If we pile all books full of assumptions, promises, lies, unproved ideas and others that were presented as "rules", we would be able to go to the moon and back without the help of NASA. So if we rarely believe in what comes to our mind as an input, we'll be more open to find later that it was wrong. If we truly believe it, without even a spark of doubt, then we've actually made a dangerous assumption. We shouldn't believe even experts. Question everything.

Acting on reading is valuable

Reading alone doesn't generate value. Acting on it does. No matter how much we read, the most important thing is how much we've created out of it. We shouldn't read things that support us only in our current work. We'll lose our perspective, which might strike us with a solution we would have otherwise never come up with.

Subscribe to the biggest local library

No matter where you live, chances are there is a big library around you. Subscribe to it and see what you wasn't aware of—it might be eye-opening. Nothing compares with the experience of learning something useful which gives us a unique viewpoint and transforms us as people. This way we'll actually gain access to the person we want to become.