7 ways you can learn to love reading ebooks


About a decade ago, somebody gave us our first crock pot, also known as a slow cooker. For months we feasted on the remarkably easy, delicious dishes it could produce: chicken tagines and chilis, beef briskets and vegan stews. Then I made the mistake of discussing our love of slow-cooker food with a fellow crock pot owner, who observed: “yep, it’s handy — but have you noticed that everything comes out tasting the same?”

I hadn’t noticed, actually, but once it was pointed out to me, the spell was broken. Yes, it was a delicious flavour….but it was always the same flavour: goût de crock pot. My embrace of the Kindle — and ebooks in general — has been hampered by a similar phenomenon. Yes, I can use the Kindle to read a literary novel, or a business bestseller, or a sci-fi thriller, but they all come out tasting like Kindle. The authorial voice that forms a large part of my reading experience is somehow flatted and homogenized such that even books I expected to love — Anathem, A Short History of Women, Generosity — left me lukewarm….until I gave up on the digital versions and switched to paper. While I’ve done lots of work with and on ebooks (including writing my own series), it seemed like a medium that could usefully accommodate my professional reading, but not my desire to disappear into a novel.

At least until this past November. Faced with a long-haul flight and eager to read a novel that was not yet available in Canada, I downloaded Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch onto my Kindle Paperwhite. Somewhere over the Atlantic I realized I was no longer noticing the Kindle. I tore through the book as furiously as I’ve read many a paperback, and lost myself just as completely. To test whether this was the exception, or a breakthrough, I looked for another well-reviewed book, and landed on Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: another winner. At that point I realized I was halfway through the four novels on the New York Times’ list of the 10 Best Books of 2013, so I moved on to Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — completely fascinating, totally engrossing. Yesterday I wrapped up the quartet by finishing Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, again without experiencing Kindle-itis.

So here I am, a convert to digital reading. My on- and offline conversations with friends and colleagues had led me to believe such a conversion was highly unlikely, since readers seem to fall into two camps: those who have readily embraced ebooks for their convenience and features, and those who (like me) found that it fundamentally altered their reading experience. Now that I’ve crossed the chasm, and can enjoy the benefits of e-reading without diminishing my reading experience, I want to share my tips on how you can learn to read ebooks, even if you’ve faced similar challenges:

  1. Evaluate your commitment. There’s no intrinsic reason you need to become an ebook reader, especially if you’re old enough that you expect to predecease the printed book. (At age 42, I’m not sure I will.) If you’ve had a hard time taking to ebooks, you may find that learning to read on an e-reader is a little bit like learning to read in the first place: it takes time and practice to move from reading as work to reading as pleasure. Unless you’re really committed to reading digitally, you may not be able to get over the hump, so think carefully about how much you’re prepared to invest in acquiring this skill.
  2. Find a use case. If reading an ebook were no more useful than reading a printed book, I doubt I’d ever have gotten over my antipathy. What kept me trying were a few compelling use cases: situations in which an ebook is much more useful than a printed book. For me, these are travel (especially longer trips in which I might otherwise haul multiple titles), and bedtime (unlike a lamp or even a booklight, the Kindle is dim enough that it doesn’t keep the kids awake, so I can read while they drift off).
  3. Try multiple devices. The Kindle Paperwhite I now enjoy reading on is the fourth or fifth device on which I’ve tried digital books (two earlier Kindle models and two different iPads). The first- and second-generation Kindles really were too sluggish to enjoy; the iPad too harsh for my eyes. The slim size, adjustable contrast, e-ink and responsiveness of the Paperwhite made happy e-reading imaginable, if not immediate, so if you haven’t taken to e-readers, try a few different models until you find the one that seems like the best fit.
  4. Tweak your settings. A friend who is a professional designer attributed some of my e-reading travails to the difference between digital and print line lengths, and adjusted my iPad reader’s line length, font size and margins to something that felt more book-like.  When I was first adjusting to my Paperwhite, I tweaked the same settings, using a paper copy of the novel I was reading as a reference point: I played with the font choice and point size until the line length closely approximated the layout of the printed book.
  5. Switch it up. When I was last bemoaning my trouble getting into ebooks, a number of people advised trying a wider range of titles. While the four books that finally converted me are all very much the kinds of books I enjoy on paper, I know that what I look for in an audiobook is different from what I look for in print, so it’s easy for me to understand why some people make similar distinctions between paper and ebooks. If you’ve had a hard time enjoying digital novels, try nonfiction, or try reading trashier (or more challenging) books than you read in print. Try multiple genres and forms until you have a few reading experiences in which the e-reader is no longer front-and-centre, and then try reading the kinds of books you enjoy on paper.
  6. Share your book. Passing on a well-loved book to an equally loved friend is one of life’s great pleasures. And while it’s theoretically possible to lend a Kindle title, it’s not quite as simple as handing over a physical book. That’s why I’ve needed to find other ways to own, and share, what I’m reading: by embracing the highlighting feature (now as much a part of my novel reading as it is my nonfiction reading, since I can finally hold onto the lines that resonate) and by sharing my very favorite passages on social media.
  7. Buy fresh. When I have fallen out of the reading habit as a print reader, it’s usually because I’ve had a hard time transitioning from one book to the next. While I’ve stockpiled tempting novels so that there’s always something on hand, I want to read what I want to read….and if nothing on my own shelves catches my eye, and I don’t have time to hit a bookstore, I may go weeks or months before I next pick up a book. Stockpiling digital titles creates the same problem, so unless I expect to be offline for a sustained period of time, I try to buy at the time I plan to start reading. That way I can buy something I’m eager to dig into immediately, often because it’s an intriguing new release.

Have you had trouble reading on an e-reader, or have you taken to ebooks with immediate enthusiasm? I’d love to hear your experience, and your tips for having a great e-reading experience.

11 things I want to stop learning

There are some things I seem destined to learn over and over again, and gosh, I wish I could stop learning them already. For example:

  1. Unplug it before you open it.
  2. If you don’t want to do it tomorrow, you won’t want to do it in three months, either.
  3. Just because Apple makes it doesn’t mean you need it.
  4. Put the blackout curtains up in the kids’ room on the first day of spring, not the first day of summer.
  5. If you think it’ll look great as soon as you put on your Spanx, don’t buy it.
  6. A blender is not a suitable substitute for a food processor when it comes to making pesto.
  7. Don’t use a rolling ball pen on an airplane.
  8. If the episode opens with a dead female body, there’s a strong chance it features a rape scene or disturbing account thereof.
  9. Liquor before beer, never fear…
  10. Dave Winer and David Weinberger are two entirely separate people.
  11. Trust your gut. It’s never wrong.

End those digital fasts with these 5 April Fool’s Day pranks

Well, folks, it’s almost that time again: Easter. Also known as the end of Lent. Or what should be known as national coming out day for all the people who’ve just spent the past 40 days doing some kind of digital fasteaster egg on computer key. They inevitably come back with a desire to enlighten us with their Enormous Insight Into The Nature of Digital Existence And Everything, before they return to tweeting their latest random thoughts just like they always have.

This year, however, the calendar has afforded us a delightful opportunity: since Lent ends just before April 1, we can and should play some collective pranks on the newly re-digitized. After all, they’re not online to read what we are planning. Here are some options:

  1. Invent a new YouTube meme that, like the Harlem Shake, requires you to dance like a crazy person: but this time, solo, unmasked and in your underwear. Pay for targeted online ads that tell people about the latest must-join meme as soon as they blog, tweet or Facebook the words “digital fast”.
  2. Pretend that Facebook changed its privacy settings at the beginning of Lent, and all their ultra-private content has been publicly displayed on their wall for forty days without them knowing it.
  3. Send them a link to the new app that everybody is using and which is going to leave them friendless and alone unless they immediately sign up, too. The sign-up form should be a web page with a sign-up form that goes exactly nowhere; clicking “submit” should tell them that they have been added to the beta wait list and will be informed when it’s their turn to join.
  4. Tell them that Twitter has now extended its post length to 200 characters. Let them write their verbose tweets, and we can all mock them when their tweets get awkwardly truncated. What could be more humiliating?
  5. Convince them that while they were offline, Google Reader shut down, and they will have to find some other way to access online news. This one is particularly hilarious if your digital faster accesses the Internet from within an authoritarian regime, and relies on Reader to get news from beyond the firewall. Tell them they’re now going to be limited to the same censored content as all their neighbors, and ROTFL!

13 New Year’s resolutions for a better life online

2013 year button on keyboardAs you start the new year with the best intentions for your personal, professional and emotional development, don’t forget to put your tech life on the list. Here are 13 resolutions to choose from, depending on your own tech challenges and commitments; you’ll know which one is right from the combination of excitement and anxiety it inspires:

  1. For the social networking butterfly: To think about the three to ten people you’d most like to develop stronger relationships with this year, and prioritize their news updates in your Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other social network-reading. (Lists and circles will help.)
  2. For the reluctant techie: To try three new software programs or web applications, spending at least 10 hours using each one.
  3. For the online shopper: To visit shopping sites only after making a specific “items needed” list, and to buy only items on that list.
  4. For the Twitter junkie: To look at your follower number no more than once a month, so that you can focus on your contributions and experience rather than the number of followers you acquire.
  5. For the parent: To ask your kid’s/kids’ permission before you post any photos, cute quotes, art works or stories about them.
  6. For the productivity software geek: To spend 10 hours completing tasks for every 1 hour you spend playing with the box software they came in.
  7. For the mobile junkie: To stop taking out your phone or tablet during a gap or wait of five minutes or less. Instead, just be. (Thank you Leda Dederich for this one.)
  8. For the Internet free-loader: To contribute or upload at least one tip, answer, blog post, media file, review or offer of help for every 100 things you discover, answer or enjoy online.
  9. For the early adopter: To wait at least two weeks after the release of a hotly-anticipated new gadget before you buy yours.
  10. For the analytics junkie: To check your site stats only when you have a specific question, with actionable implications, in mind before you look at your latest numbers.
  11. For the not-quite-a-coder geek: To write your first script, snippet or app.
  12. For the developer: To invest 10% of the time you spend writing code in documenting the code you have written.
  13. For the email forwarder: To stop forwarding email chain letters, cute cat pictures, funny jokes someone sent you, tragic stories about chronically ill children, consumer alerts about reportedly dangerous products, unbelievable true life stories that are unbelievable because they aren’t actually true, calls to action for social or political causes you aren’t directly involved in, or basically, any other email you want to forward but haven’t personally written. Believe me when I say that everybody who is making any of the other resolutions is begging you to make this one.

Whatever tech resolutions you make for the coming year, I hope it is one in which your online life is meaningful, fulfilling and integrated with an offline life that is every bit as rewarding.

Towards a geography of digital memory

I’m in Toronto for a lightning trip, speaking tomorrow at a luncheon hosted by Women in Film & Television. Tonight I’m staying at the Sutton Place Hotel, which puts me at the epicentre of memory for my first 25 years of life. From the east-facing window of my suite I look down the barrel of Wellesley Street, which ends in the park that my childhood home adjoined. From the south-facing window I see the Ontario government office block where Rob worked when we first met, long before we got married. If I craned my head out to look west, I’d be looking at the blocks leading to my high school and all the tortured memories that are now locked away within its walls. And if I could look almost due north, I could see the former location of the ice cream cone where Rob and I ate the day we first had lunch together, across from the museum where we were later married.

The geography of memory is powerful and inescapable. There’s no way for me to sit at the corner of Wellesley and Bay Street without feeling utterly overwhelmed by the cumulative personal history that lies within these few square kilometres. At age 40, those memories bring a shocking and somewhat painful awareness of how far distant these memories mostly lie, both in years and in emotional immediacy; the very fact that they no longer hold the same heat or clarity is a reminder of how long ago these events took place. With that tangible connection to the passing of time comes the brutal, blessed awareness of what it means to make each day count, and to use well the years that lie ahead.

If walking down a once-familiar street can discipline us in the art of living fully, what happens when our memories no longer lie in streets to which we can return? Geek though I be, my memories are mostly embedded in the physical spaces that presently surround me: my childhood home (where I used my first computer); the Queen’s Park legislature (where I met my husband on the online chat network); the local pub (where a group of us convened the meeting that established Canada’s first online political network).

As our world and culture move online, it will be the digital experiences that take the foreground, and the geographic locations that fade to the back. Do you remember where you sat when you first logged onto Facebook — and would you be nostalgic to return to that same desk? Do you remember where you were when you wrote you first tweet? Which computer you were using the day you met your digital BFF?

Our digital spaces might themselves hold the same evocative power as the geographic spaces to which we now attach, but unlike physical locations, we are much less likely to revisit them. Have you used the Internet Archive to visit your old Geocities page and enjoy a whiff of nostalgia? Looked for a screen capture of the AOL login screen? Listened to a recording of the sound your 2400-baud modem made as it established its tentative connection to the net?

While our digital lives are much easier to preserve and much harder to erase than the specifics of any given cityscape, we are far less likely to discover emotional resonance through the happenstance of wandering onto the digital terrain of our youth. A website, once razed, no longer has a location to which you can feel attachment; nobody notices that the URL they are visiting represents an I.P. address that used to belong to their favorite blog. Online, what’s gone is gone, and even what remains — technically — may be just as invisible if we never visit, and it never pops up in search results.

What anchors can we create, I wonder, to provide some emotional endurance to our most meaningful digital moments? Perhaps Facebook’s Timeline is a start, giving you a way to wander down your digital memory lane and remember the funny site you once liked or shared.

But the emotional memories that have the power to shock us into recognizing the passage of time — to recognize how brief and precious today really is — are not the memories that we carefully curate. They are the memories we stumble across, or stumble into, someplace as impermanent as a one-night hotel room.

S.E.O. is payback for teenage freaks

Today I was catching up with my colleague Haig Armen when he asked me if I knew Steve Andersen.

“You mean, Steve Andersen from Salesforce?” I asked.

[“You mean, Steve Anderson of Open Media?” my husband asked later.]

“No, Steve Anderson of Get Mental Notes,” Haig replied.

“See, this is why it’s better to be named Haig Armen,” I pointed out.

“Not when you’re 15.”

Haig’s point is well-taken. When you’re 15, it sucks to have a funky name. It sucks to be distinctive. It really sucks to be unique.

But S.E.O. is the ultimate payback for all the teen freaks. Not  (just) those who are reincarnated as dot-com millionaires, but all those with freaky interests that let us rule a corner of the blogosphere, freaky aesthetics that let us rule on Etsy or Flickr, or freaky names that guarantee that when someone googles your name, they actually find you.

So, teen freaks of the world: it gets better. You may want to blend in today. But tomorrow, when you’re ready to stand out, Google will reward you.

5 commandments for your digital fast this Lent

I’m not really a Lent kinda gal. (It may have something to do with me being Jewish.) But for the past few years, I’ve felt increasingly Lent-aware, because of the sheer number of people who now seem to give up Facebook for Lent (but then tweet about it), email for Lent (but then blog about it) or even the entire Internet for Lent (but then double-up on their online postings the moment they’ve bitten the ears off a chocolate bunny.)

If you’re giving up the Internet (or some part of it) for Lent because you think it will be good for you to unplug, I hope you’ll read the piece I wrote for The Atlantic last week on smarter alternatives to unplugging.

If you’re giving up the Internet for Lent because you think it will suck to unplug, and the suffering is the point (I am getting the general gist of Lent correct here, aren’t I?) then go for it: suffer to your heart’s delight! But just please please don’t make the rest of us happily plugged-in, Lent-free folks suffer with you. Some guidelines for your Lenten digital fast:

  1. Don’t tweet, blog, Facebook, YouTube or otherwise chronicle how offline you are. That is totally cheating.
  2. Keep all your other screen time constant. If you replace your five daily hours of World of Warcraft with five hours watching action movies, you are missing out on the opportunity to actually learn something from this experience.
  3. Your profound revelations about the true nature of digital life, which are only apparent to you now that you are spending the hour between 6-7 a.m. offline every day for forty entire days OMG!!! are not going to impress those of us who still remember the value of an always-on iPhone. We don’t want to hear about your new digital enlightenment over coffee or while we are in line with you at the ATM.
  4. When you come back online after 40 days, please do not forward us the adorable photo of the cat that got stuck in the dryer with a teddy bear, LOL! We all saw that picture on about nine different people’s Facebook walls in the eternity that you went offline.
  5. Remember: just because you’re giving it up for 40 days doesn’t mean it isn’t a useful part of your life for the other 325.


Focus on your priorities with O.M.F.T.

Last night I was delighted to participate in a panel hosted by Canadian Women in Communications, speaking alongside Rebecca Bollwitt (aka Miss 604) and Gillian Shaw of the Vancouver Sun. CWC President Stephanie MacKendrick did a terrific job of eliciting our respective stories on how we got into social media, and really homed in on the question of how we were each inspired to make careers in the digital realm.

One of the questions that came up in the ensuing discussion was how we each maintain balance between our on- and offline lives, or between work and personal life. Did any of us have personal mantras that helped us stay grounded?

I shared the mantra that’s helped keep our house sane(r) for the past 8 years: O.M.F.T.  We discovered O.M.F.T. when our daughter was 6 months old, and I was trying to finish my dissertation, and we only had child care about 15 hours a week, and Rob went on the road for six weeks to serve as Jack Layton’s speechwriter during the 2004 election campaign. I was beyond stressed out, and as I found myself sitting in the garage one afternoon drinking an emergency glass of wine (I’d already gone through all the wine in the house, but had some kosher-for-Passover wine stashed away), I had to admit that we were trying to live and work beyond our actual capacity. Thus was born our acronym for clearly declaring a personal or professional commitment out-of-scope: if it was just One More Fucking Thing, O.M.F.T.

You know a commitment is O.M.F.T. if you’ve had a cold for two weeks, have a kid home sick with strep, and are behind on five crucial, looming deadlines. (This is just hypothetical, of course.) At that point, anything that isn’t related to meeting one of those deadlines, or keeping you and your family alive, has to be designated O.M.F.T.  Say no to it, or if it’s already on your plate, take it off.

O.M.F.T. can help you keep your online life in order, too. Are you already running too hard, just keeping your Twitter feed, blog and Facebook profile alive? Well, maybe Google+ is O.M.F.T.  Do you have 45 unanswered client e-mails? Well, maybe the RFP that just landed in your inbox is O.M.F.P., and you don’t actually have to submit a proposal…you’ve got plenty of work already.  Is your iPhone refusing to sync with your computer? Well, maybe fixing it is just O.M.F.T. and for now, you’re going to have to live un-synced.

The truth is that if you live online, you don’t have One More Fucking Thing — you probably have dozens. The Internet generates a constant stream of demands for your attention, input and work. The only way to keep from being totally overwhelmed by those demands is to develop a reflexive way of separating out what’s essential from what’s optional, and to recognize whenever you’re in a moment of stress or activity that necessarily limits you to only the essentials.

O.M.F.T. is the tool that works for me. Start asking yourself whether the latest demand to hit your inbox is O.M.F.T., and it could work for you too.

How much social media is enough?

Today’s practice: Focus on quality, not quantity.

Today’s tweets are full of references to New Year’s resolutions: “Tweet more”. “Tweet less”. “Blog more”. “Blog less.” “Check Facebook no more than once a day.” “Check Facebook at least once a day.”

You get the idea.

Like at least one other notable aspect of human intercourse, social media conversation has become preoccupied by how much. How much is too little? How much is too much? How much is just right?

Here’s one case where we should listen to the conventional wisdom: it’s not how much, it’s how you use it.

So this year, let go of your expectations for how much. Let go of your fears about enough. Let go of your fantasy that you’re going to offer more than the next guy.

And instead, focus on using what you’ve got. Give us one perfect tweet, every day. Post to YouTube just once this year, if that’s the one brilliant video you capture with your phone. Blog five times in a week, and then go dark until you’ve got fresh inspiration a month or two later.

Even if you’re strategic and consistent about posting regularly on 5 different social media platforms, give yourself one where you can let go of how much, and focus purely on quality. Having one social network where you’re freed from worrying about “how much” may be the key to discovering a new depth of thought, quality and sincerity in what you post. And if all if does is shift your preoccupation with how much, well, that will be enough.

How to follow your own principles online

Today’s practice: Listen carefully to the slightest twinge of discomfort about how you’re interacting online. It’s there to help you learn to follow your own principles online.

Noise to Signal Cartoon
Whoever said “it’s better to give than to receive” had to be talking about advice. Giving it is fun: it makes you feel wise, generous and smug, all at the same time. Getting it, and especially following it, is a lot harder.

That’s what struck me as I struggled yesterday to adhere to the very principles I laid out in the Social Sanity Manifesto for HBR. Here’s the one I found toughest yesterday:

I will not judge others based on their online metrics. I’ll reply to emails and mentions based on my interest and availability, not the Klout score or follower count of the person who is writing to me.

True confession time: engaging with HBR readers is probably the number one contributor to metrics abuse in my own online life. My HBR posts are typically retweeted a few hundred times, sometimes into the thousands. That’s more than I can reply to, so I have to choose which tweets or comments will get a reply.

One of the factors that’s guided my replies is the desire to help people connect my posts to my username. The vast majority of tweets about my HBR post link to HBR, or mention @harvardbiz, without mentioning me as @awsamuel. I always hope that more people will connect the dots, and start following me back. That leaves me skating awfully close to point 3, “I will not game online metrics”.

Up until yesterday, I relied on various sketchy measures of influence in order to focus my attention and replies. I usually set up a HootSuite column searching on keywords I imagine will be tweeted in links to my HBR post, and though it pains me to admit this, I’ve often filtered that column by Klout so that I see just the Klout-ing-est tweets and reply to those. And I also use Topsy.com to see everyone who is tweeting a link to my latest HBR post, but check the “show influential only” box so that I can just focus on replying to people who are Very Important Social Media Users.

Yesterday, I foreswore these practices. It was a bit anxiety-producing, because these tactics have helped me ensure I thank people who have lots of followers. If I don’t thank them, then how will they know to follow me, tweet my every word, and add their millions of followers to my own?

Here’s the other truth. As you may have noticed, I don’t actually have millions of followers. All this busy influence-filtering has perhaps had some impact over the past couple of years, but it hasn’t been earth-shattering.

But it has been soul-shattering. Every time I’ve used these influence-filtering techniques, I’ve felt a bit icky. Every time I’ve demonstrated these influence-filtering techniques, I’ve felt ickier. And when I recently taught these techniques to a roomful of students, I felt downright corrupt. Was this really how I wanted to teach people to use the Internet?

No, it’s not. And if it’s not good enough to teach, it’s not good enough to do.

So here I am, trying something different. I’m still thanking people who tweeted my post, but I’m thanking the people who did mention me, rather than focusing on those who didn’t. I’m thanking some of the latter, too, but I’m picking out the most interesting or thoughtful tweets rather than allocating my attention based on the metrics-based “value” of the tweeter.

As a result, I had an energizing day of conversation. I got to think about what people were saying, instead of focusing on the numbers. I had a few actual back-and-forth exchanges with people, and I started following a few new people myself. I started a new list of people who were interested in this post, and who I hope will a source of further conversations ahead.

The lesson, in all this, is about more than judging people by the content of the tweets rather than the number of their Klout. It’s about listening to that inner ick, whenever it appears; about paying attention to the inner voice that tells us we’re transgressing some fundamental human principle in our interactions online.

We’re all babies, here, learning how to live online. Our digital moral compass is still calibrating, and the inner voice of conscience often whispers when we need it to shout. So get really, really quiet and listen, because it may be telling you something very important about who to spend time with online, and how to treat them.