My book reading workflow

I have been reading since childhood and never did I realise that a book reading workflow is a thing that I would one day develop. As a child, things were simple. I could always make time for books. Books took priority over most other things in life. But as grown-ups we no longer have that freedom, flexibility and those long periods of uninterrupted time. With other responsibilities taking preference over your favourite hobby, having a workflow in place starts making sense. Neither was my workflow intentional  nor did it emerge instantaneously. I guess it just evolved over time from an amorphous set of undefined and random activities to a well-oiled set of definite steps. Let’s find out what they are.

Want to Read

What gets measured gets managed.

This is a quote made famous by the legendary management guru Peter Drucker in his book, The Practice of Management. It has become of my maxims in my self-improvement journey. I keep in mind this quote everytime I want to develop a good habit. Running? I measure how many minutes I ran. Diet? I measure my weight regularly. Building a meditation practice? I keep a daily log of my meditation times.

Measuring something is the first step to improving your performance at it. So if your goal is to read as many books as you can, an imperative is to start by tracking your book reading.

There are multiple ways to do it. You can simply use a notepad and keep a list of books that you are reading or are planning to read. If you want to be more thorough, you can add start and end dates to track how long it took you to complete a book.

I use Goodreads to plan and maintain my book reading workflow. LibraryThing is another site that I recommend for tracking your books. The difference between the two? If you want a social experience, I would recommend Goodreads. If you want a private library, then LibraryThing is, well, your thing. I started with Goodreads, moved on to LibraryThing for a while and then switched back to Goodreads. I like the uncluttered interface of Goodreads better. I would suggest you try out both these websites and make your own choice. Trello is another excellent task manager that I dabbled in for some time. It has a card and board based layout that can mimic the book shelves in Goodreads or LibraryThing. A task manager like Trello works when you just want to track your books and are not interested in the metadata that both of these websites provide.

Ideally I would prefer to plan out in advance my entire book reading list for the year. But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes you come across a good book while randomly browsing the library or your neighbourhood book store. Sometimes you come across a book being recommended in the book that you are reading. And down you go exploring the rabbit hole.

One useful suggestion. While selecting books, do not simply go by the blurb or even reviews. Make a point to browse through the book and see if it appeals to you. One of my first steps whenever a book catches my eyes to quickly go through the Table of Contents. Be it in the book store or on Amazon’s website, this is a must before I add the book to my workflow.

Whenever I find a book that seems interesting, I add it to my Want To Read shelf on Goodreads. This becomes the pool of potential next reads. If you’re really serious about maintaing a steady rhythm in your book reading workflow, I would suggest you to sign up for the Goodreads yearly challenge. This is another nifty feature of Goodreads that lets you set a target for the number of books that you think you can complete in a year. You see, what gets measured gets managed.

Currently Reading

On your marks

Once I’ve decided on which book to read, I set up a reminder in my to-do app a week down the line. Although I try to complete reading the book much faster than that, a weekly reminder helps as an outer limit.

One or many?

There are people who like to read more than one book at a time. They can switch effortlessly between the two stories, plots and characters. I’m not a good multi-tasker. So I prefer to read one book at a time. Pairing books while reading has its own pros and cons. On one hand, having an alternate book to switch to (especially in a different genre) is a good way to keep away from monotony. On the other hand, it can also leave you divided for attention. This is especially evident while reading non-fiction when it helps to be completely focused on the material. Neither of these approaches has a significant advantage all the time, so I leave it up to you whether you want to read multiple books at a time or focus on a single book.

Once I start reading a book, I move the book to the Reading shelf on Goodreads. Also I regularly update the page that I’m currently at on Goodreads regularly to keep myself motivated on my progress.

Read

I highlight my books profusely. I like to be able to refer to these highlights without having to go through the entire book again. So if the book that I read was on my Kindle, I extract the highlights from my Kindle account and copy them to Evernote which is the tool that I use to store all my notes. This also ensures that I have a copy of my highlights and notes with me in case one fine day the book (and its highlights) disappear from my device.

If it is a paper-based book, it is not as simple as copy and paste. It requires a couple of steps more. Earlier I typed out all my highlights directly into Evernote but I have seen that it takes a lot of time. Instead now with the advent of excellent voice recognition technology, I can simply dictate my highlights and notes. To do this you have a lot of options currently. I’ll quickly describe a few of them:-

  1. Swiftkey (or other smartphone keyboards) – Swiftkey has been my preferred keyboard on my smartphone for years. With its excellent prediction technology and its customisable layouts, Swiftkey is a better option than any other keyboard app. It also has an option to type text on your phone using speech recognition technology. Open your favourite note-taking app, press the microphone button and you can simply dictate your notes and highlights as you read. Please note that this service uses Google’s speech recognition service and your speech is processed on Google’s servers.
  2. Otter.ai – This is another program that is fast gaining popularity and is also very accurate in its speech recognition. The free version of the service gives you around 500 minutes of speech recognition every month and I think that is is more than enough for the average reader. Otter.ai also uses its own infrastructure to process your speech on their servers.
  3. Google Docs Voice Typing – If you use Chrome as your browser and have a Google account, then you can also use Google Docs (that is the online version of Microsoft Word) to recognise speech directly into the editor. Again this uses the Google infrastructure for its speech recognition.
  4. Dragon Naturally speaking – This is one of the oldest speech recognition software available today. It has improved over the years and is probably one of the best speech recognition programs available for Windows (and other platforms). Of course this software is not free and will cost you a few bucks. But be reminded that you will probably have to train the software in order to get a decent level of accuracy from it.
  5. Online transcription services – There are a lot of transcription services online where you can hire a person to transcribe your audio for you. A couple of websites that provide this service includes fiverr and craigslist. But I wouldn’t recommend going so far as asking someone to type out your notes and highlights. First there will be a considerable turn around time for getting your transcribed text sent back to you. Secondly, in this day and age of Alexas and Siris, voice recognition has become a trivial problem. With powerful and accurate software available in the palm of your hand, there is no reason why would want to go through this approach for an incremental improvement in accuracy.

One final point in this section.

Enter Calibre

Purist book lovers swear by this software that allows you to organise your e-book library on your own computer. It can easily convert between multiple formats giving you the ability to read on your favourite app or e-reader. But that is one more reason why I like Calibre. I’m not ashamed to admit that I hate DRM on my e-books just as much as the other guy. I often de-DRM the books that I have bought to keep a reference for my personal use. Just like I own my paper-based books for ever and am not simply renting them, I believe that I should have life-time (and transferable) ownership of digital books as well. Because this is a grey area and laws are different in each country, I would suggest you to do your own research before de-DRMing your e-books. Of course, if you’re going to share your de-DRMed books online then you’re stupid and you deserve the penalties. No way do I condone or encourage that.

Wrap up

As I come to the end of the book and close the cover, there are a couple of steps left to do. First is to rate the book on Goodreads so that I can get more accurate recommendations in the future based on my ratings. I also try to write out a review of most of the books that I read. This helps me to summarise the book before I shelve it in the Read category. It also helps other people to make their purchase decision for their next book. After all that is what this blog is all about, right?

So there you have it. My three step workflow for reading books. Hope you liked it. How does your own workflow differ? Is it shorter and simpler than this? Or is it much more elaborate? Do let me know in the comments section.

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6 simple ways to enhance your reading on a Kindle Paperwhite

Reading on a Kindle is quite different from reading a paperback. Although a Kindle Paperwhite is my preferred mode of reading due to its convenience and its near replica feel to paper, there are certain things that an e-reader cannot replicate (yet). The intoxicating smell of paper (yes that is a fetish for some), the rustle of pages that interrupt an otherwise continuous silence, and the weight of the book in your hands.

But if you have bought an e-reader and are looking to make it your primary mode of reading, there are certainly some tweaks that can be used to enhance your reading experience on a Kindle.

Enter the Font-a-rama

If your e-reader gives you the option to choose fonts, don’t simply use the default font. Search about the various font sites online and select a font you find suitable for long periods of reading. I feel that serif fonts (the one with the squiggly bits and curls) are more suited to long form reading. This blog, for example, uses the Merriweather font for its main content. This is one of my favourite fonts because of its clean lines and elegant type. Da Font is one of my favourite sites to find free fonts that you can load on your e-reader. Some fonts that I prefer are Georgia, Bookerly and Merriweather.

Size does matter

One of the biggest advantage of an e-reader is the ability to change the font size. It is not only a boon for low accessibility users but it can play a major role in your focus and concentration depending on what the subject of your book is. I’ve found that having a bigger font size helps while reading books that are harder to understand. For books that are a breeze to read, like fiction, having a smaller font size works well enough to keep a steady rhythm without losing your place in the text.

Reading between the lines

Just like the font size, some e-readers give an option to adjust the margins and the line spacing. Adjusting these two settings also help a lot in keeping yourself focused on the text. Wide margins and spacing for harder texts. Narrow margins and spacing for easier to read books.

Everybody move to the left

Many e-readers also have the ability to align text differently. The left and the right alignment are understandable. I’m not sure what exactly is the use of providing the ability to centre-align text. Maybe for poetry? Although justified text is the common format in paperbacks, I do not recommend having the same setting on an e-reader. The reason for this is that paper books have been typeset for a particular font and size. If you have adjusted any of the settings explained above, the justified text formatting may not be the most optimum. There would be certain lines that are crammed with words while other lines would have but a handful. That jars the reading continuity. Turn on left alignment if available in your e-reader. It may not look as pretty but will be much better for your reading.

The light in the night

Kindle (and other e-readers) have a model that has an inbuilt light that serves two major purposes. One, when you turn it to the maximum in daylight, it is supposed to simulate the color of paper, thus giving a more natural feel to your reader. Secondly, it is designed to help you read in the night without having an ambient light turned on. This is useful for those reading in bed without disturbing anyone else in the room. Now I don’t have any qualms with the latter. But I feel that having a light turned on during daylight simply affects my reading. The backlight fades out the text a bit and makes it more uncomfortable to read. So I keep it off while reading in daylight. And I don’t particularly care about having a non-white paper feel to it.

Are we there yet?

Before the advent of e-readers, the only way to know how many pages were left in a chapter or a book was to just peek a few pages down and check. E-readers often have a notification that shows your how much time is left in the current chapter or book. This helps in pacing your reading just so that you can push yourself to read a few pages more (nudge nudge wink wink). At other times, it is just a distraction. Use it or turn it off as per your preference.

Hope these tips help you improve the way you read on your favourite e-reader. Let me know if these helped you or if you have any tips of your own on how to enhance the Kindle reading experience.

Featured Photo Credit: Aliis Sinisalu
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Five genres for background music while reading

Some people prefer reading in silence while others concentrate better when they read while listening to music. Especially if you are in a noisy environment, it can be sometimes difficult to block out the outside noise sufficiently for you to focus on your reading. Sometimes it pays to have a good set of headphones/earphones that can help you cancel out the noise. But not everyone has noise-cancelling headphones at their disposal. Moreover even the best noise-cancelling headphones will not block 100% of the external sound. What we have found that a good choice of background music can do wonders to provide you the perfect soothing environment for you to read with focus.

So what is a good choice of background music? To work for our purpose, music for reading has a few defining characteristics. It should be almost non-noticeable, playing the part of an enabler, rather than a distractor. It should not be too loud or jarring. So certain genres, such as metal or rap/hip-hop are effectively out. It should also not have sudden and broad movements. As a result, I find jazz music to be quite unsuitable for reading as well.

More suitable genres are ambient, lo-fi, chill, classical, etc. Something softer such as piano or flute serves our purpose better. However, strangely, I’ve found that movie (and TV) soundtracks are a great companion to reading fiction. With their build up and climax, they help you become more engrossed in the story. Imagine listening to the Light of the Seven from the Game of Thrones when something big is going to go down in the crime thriller that you’re reading. That will definitely heighten the mood and create a multi-dimensional effect in the material that you’re reading.

Thankfully, one doesn’t need to search far and wide to find such music. YouTube has a plethora of videos that are suitable for each and every occasion – whether you’re lying in the bathtub with a glass of wine, or enjoying a quiet dinner, or simply lounging with your friends. Below are five music sets, each from a different genre that will help you focus on your reading. I have avoid genres such as binaural beats because there’s not much clarity whether these are actually as effective as they claim. You can still try them out if it works for you.

Chill

Boring Work | Beautiful Chill Mix – As the title suggest this is an effective companion to when you’re doing boring work. Of course this is not to imply that reading is boring (how blasphemous!) but that this set can help you focus more on the reading than the music. And the one hour play time is more than enough for any session of reading (You do take breaks, don’t you?).

Flute

Raag Ahir Bhairav in Flute – One of my favourite tracks to get up in the morning to. Simple, relaxing and unassuming. This can be the perfect set to block out the world and keep your mind calm and relaxed as you navigate the pages of your book.

Epic

2-hours epic music mix – As I said, sometimes an upbeat heroic soundtrack is the perfect companion for reading fiction. This mega 2-hour collection of tracks has sufficient energy to keep you turning pages one after the other as you plough through the latest bestseller.

Classical

Classical music for reading – Ah, classical music. Who better than the likes of Mozart, Chopin and the other greats of classical music to give you company as you read from your collection of classic literary fiction. Jane Austen would be so proud.

Noise!

White Noise – Well, Sometimes you don’t need any particular genre of music to accompany your reading. Sometimes you just want to block out the outside world. And what better way to block out external noise than to use a combination of all the possible frequencies of audible sound. That is what exactly white noise is. A combination of all the possible audible frequencies hat the human ear can perceive. And by listening to this combination of frequencies, you are blocking out any and all types of noise from your surroundings, whether it is a baby crying, or a couple arguing, or the sound of incessant traffic.

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