Slow reading on a Kindle

3PictureMarja-Leena-Rathje-paperwhites2014I live out essentially two notions of slow reading. One focuses meditatively over a verse’s or small passage’s phrasing. The other digs into an entire book through marginalia and multiple reads. One is meditation and the other is study, though, happily, the lines blur.

Over the past seven months, I’ve tried both kinds of close reading on the latest Kindle Paperwhite. Each morning I’m reading a psalm, or part of a psalm, depending on its length and how things are going, from an unfamiliar translation.  I’ve also tried to wear out two larger Kindle books. In the process, I typed 178 margin notes in one Kindle book and 452 margin notes in the other. (I love marginalia: my best writing is in my margin notes.) This post reflects on my experience of close reading these three texts on the Kindle.

By the way, the psalms translation is Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. The first of the two larger books is Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, and the second is Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies.

While I was reading Niebuhr’s book on my Kindle, I was also alternately “reading” it by listening to an unabridged recording of it on my phone’s Audible app. I’d stop this performance on occasion to record notes, and a transcribed version of my recorded notes would collect along with my typed margin notes when the phone’s app synced.

I wasn’t reading these books just to test the Kindle, of course. But I was curious, as I went along, to see how close reading on a Kindle stacked up against close reading a physical book. I also wondered what a well-lived-in Kindle book would feel like. Here’s what I’ve discovered in terms of both function and feel.

1. Typing margin notes on a Kindle is slow, but that’s not all bad. More ideas sometimes occurred to me as I used a single finger to press the tiny keys at the bottom of my Kindle. In a way it was more tactile than writing notes with a pen in a paper book. I found that I reflected more on what I was writing.

2. With 452 margin notes in Open Society, I need a way to search them. The search function on the Kindle and on the computer’s Kindle app doesn’t search my marginalia; it searches only the book’s text. To search my notes, I log into on my laptop and click “Your Highlights.”

3. The “Your Highlights” page produces my few thousand notes on a single, slowly loading page. To search the page, I type Command-F, as I’d type to find something on any web page. Amazon hasn’t developed a serious research tool for Kindle yet, though any search function beats searching for marginalia in paper books, of course.

4. “Your Highlights” also collects my highlights. I have thousands of them, too. It’s not as good as highlighting a physical book, of course, not as tactile going on and not as personal to read again. But I can limit my book search to just the highlighted text on the “Your Highlights” web page.

Figure 2 – The Kindle Paperwhite’s notes page. The thin line in the scrollbar suggests the problem with its utility: I can see only 4 of over 1,400 summaries of highlighted texts and margin notes at a time.

5. On the Kindle, highlighted text adds the first words of that text on a scrollable bar in order to find it more easily. This function doesn’t scale well either, of course, since for Open Society I ended up with 955 highlights in addition to the 452 margin notes. Both are very difficult to find again on the Kindle. Figure 2 gives you a notion of how difficult finding highlighted text or text associated with marginalia is: I can see only four items at a time among the 1,400 text highlights and notes I’ve made while reading.

6. Typing marginalia on my computer’s Kindle app is a lot different than typing them on the Kindle. On the computer, I can put down thoughts that come to me quickly, of course, using my laptop’s keyboard, but like most people, I don’t like reading books on a computer screen, even a laptop’s screen. I write notes on my Kindle app only if I’m in study mode, cross-referencing books or collecting ideas for possible blog posts on books I’m reading.

7. The syncing between the Audible app and the Kindle devices is great, but it’s a bit haphazard. My recorded marginalia on my Audible app show up as bookmarks, not as margin notes, on my Kindle, but they show up as margin notes on my computer, both in the Kindle app and on my “Your Highlights” page on Kindle’s web site.

8. Copying and pasting text from the computer’s Kindle app is a mixed blessing. It knows to paste in the formatting I’ve set up for Word without my having to select “Paste and Match Formatting” from Word’s “Edit” pull-down menu. It also includes, with each paste, enough information for a works cited or parenthetical citation. But one must copy twice if the text in the Kindle app straddles two pages there.

9. Reading and copying footnotes is good but could be improved. Open Society itself, by volume of words, is about one-third footnotes. I like how the Kindle gives me the option to read a footnote as a popup or to go to the footnote in the text. But each has its disadvantage. I can’t copy from the popup footnote, but when I go to the footnote in Irony – the text with the audio version – the Whispersync marker is thrown off. That means when I go to listen to Irony, it picks up with the footnote at the back of the book and not with the text. I can fix that on the “Manage My Kindle” web page, but it’s a small hassle to do so.

Figure 3 - The Kindle Paperwhite's page-browsing function.
Figure 3 – The Kindle Paperwhite’s page-browsing function.

10. I want my favorite books to look and feel like I’ve digested them. I’ve worn out several books; I’ve had two rebound, and I’ve used packaging tape to keep others together. I don’t think I’ll ever have that satisfying, broken-in-book feeling on a Kindle. I wish it had something like an easily accessible bar whose left edge would be the book’s first page and the right page its last to indicate where my highlights and notes appear along a continuum of the book’s pages. I would be able to simply touch a heavily populated place along that bar and get to text associated with a good clump of my notes and highlights. That would feel something like opening a book to its most familiar, worn-edged pages.

11. I don’t think I’ll ever have a broken-in-page feeling on a Kindle, either. I wish it had more colorful and personal means of marking that comport with good ideas people use to annotate print text. I’m more word than picture oriented, but I miss not being able to doodle, to draw impromptu tables, to emphasize with different underline colors (though you can highlight with different colors on Kindle’s phone apps), to draw arrows, to quickly vary my notes’ text size, etc.

12. I find that my more meditative slow reading on a Kindle is, overall, a better experience than my more studious slow reading on a Kindle. Here I’ll mention things that I’ve heard other people discuss when they talk about the Kindle experience. The Paperwhite feels nice in the hand, not too heavy or clumsy. I can read without turning on the room’s light. It allows me to flip through pages before and after the current page without committing to a new page – the electronic version of sticking a finger in the page spread I’m reading currently. (See figure 3.)

13. My main complaint with meditative slow reading on a Kindle is that I can’t change how long the Kindle stays on one page before it cuts off. Amazon doesn’t understand that slow readers sometimes spend a half hour or more on a text without turning a page. I can program the Paperwhite to stay on indefinitely, but in doing so I lose some other functionality.

Despite the feeling that I’m retrofitting Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem to do serious study with it, I’ll keep using it. I hope they do things to make the Kindle more useful for slow readers and more pleasing to all readers.

The beautiful flowers above are paperwhites, photographed by Marja-Leena Rothje and used by her generous permission.


  1. This is interesting because even “reading on a Kindle” differs depending on what exactly you mean by “Kindle.” I have an old, pre-Paperwhite Kindle that has a keyboard of buttons on the bottom, so taking notes would be easier with that than with a touch-screen Kindle. I also use the Kindle app to read books on my phone and tablet, so on occasion I’ve read/referenced the same book on various Kindle interfaces, along with hard-copy, and it’s definitely true that I interact with even the same text differently depending on how I’m reading it.

    When I was younger, I made voluminous notes while reading; I don’t do that any more unless I’m reading something I know I’ll be teaching. When I read on my old Kindle, I frequently use the highlighting feature but rarely type notes, even though the keyboard makes it easy to do that. (I do, however, use the keyboard with the Kindle’s “search” feature, which I find hugely helpful.) When I read on my phone, I don’t take any sort of notes, but on the tablet, I find myself both highlighting and taking notes.

    (Interestingly, on the tablet you can highlight in multiple colors, which I suppose could be useful if you color-coded your annotation. I used to do that with spiritual texts, so one of my cherished possessions is my old paperback copy of The Cloud of Unknowing with my college-era marginalia AND color-coded underlinings: a text with my own “illuminations.”)

    For me, the Kindle is invaluable for having many books on hand, and I find it hugely helpful to be able to search a given book for a particular passage. If I’m teaching a particular text, I’ll typically have it in BOTH a hardcopy and Kindle version: the hardcopy is what I use in class, so it has my notes, but I use the Kindle version for quick reference when I’m traveling or want to look up a specific passage.

    Maybe what I’m describing is a new version of a “well-read” book: a text you’ve not only read multiple times, but a text that you’ve read multiple in different formats and in different ways, sometimes stopping to annotate, sometimes letting yourself get swept away in the prose, sometimes highlighting, sometimes paging (or scrolling) through.

  2. Lorianne, I’ve never thought of a “well-read” book in that light, but I think you’re right. My first reaction: I do imagine a squeakier voice when I read the same text on my phone’s Kindle app! Your suggestion also brings to mind Deuteronomy 6: “Bind them as a sign on your hand and wear them as a pendant on your forehead; write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.” Same text; different delivery systems, right there in the law. Maybe the “sign on your hand” is the iWatch, and the “pendant on your forehead” is Google Glass. More fulfilled prophecy! :)

    “I used to do that with spiritual texts, so one of my cherished possessions is my old paperback copy of The Cloud of Unknowing with my college-era marginalia AND color-coded underlinings: a text with my own “illuminations.”)”

    Yes. I don’t think I’ll be satisfied with electronic books until I can have this kind of feel. And maybe I’ll never be satisfied because, like you, some of my similarly worn texts are from my youth. I probably don’t realize how sentimental I am.

    And I guess it’s good that the four ways I access Kindle texts — my Kindle, my laptop, my phone, and (rarely) a web browser — involve similar but not entirely similar interfaces and functions. It gives me an opportunity to find a comfort level for each kind of reading, as you suggest. Oddly, meditative reading is best on my phone, though it’s good on the Kindle. Pure pleasure reading with no stopping for notes is best on my Kindle. Study and any note-taking are best on the computer.

    Yesterday I joined the new Amazon Unlimited — up to ten loaned Kindle books. To pay for it, I suspended my Audible account for three months since Unlimited also comes with a free, three-month Audible membership. I now have way more books on my Kindle than I can read this summer. But they’re like library books: I can’t write in them. Well, I can, but the notes go away unless I end up buying the book.

    Thanks for your comments.

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