Reading on the iPad is fantastic

Reading on the iPad is fantastic. I don’t care what other people have said, I just know that after using it for a fortnight, I can tell that it’s changed the way I’ll read forever.

I used to spend several hours a day in front of my iMac at home, using a combination of Google Reader and tabs to systematically plough through dozens of newspaper articles, magazine articles, and blog posts. It worked well enough, although it was rather antisocial and tiring, plus I often got distracted by the various widgets and chat windows on my monitors, not to mention regularly checking Google Reader and Gmail for new content. Still, it certainly didn’t seem to me that this was a bad setup, since I could get an awful lot done.

With the iPad, at least half – maybe two thirds – of my reading now takes place on my iPad. Since most of my reading was online (with the exception of the New Yorker and The Atlantic), this means that I spend a hell of a lot of time reading on my iPad.

My ‘readflow’ is very simple – I use my iMac to go through my various feeds, saving everything longer than 300 words or so to Instapaper, a free online service that saves webpages for reading later. When I open the Instapaper app on my iPad, it automatically synchronises those pages, stripping everything from them except for the article text and any images they contain. Since you can customise Instapaper’s layout and font, the reading experience is often very comfortable.

By presenting webpages as just text and images, an article from the New Yorker looks exactly the same as one from the New Republic or BBC News; they have the same font, the same leading, and the same layout. Since you lose all the traditional cues that mark out one magazine or website from another, like the colours and feel of the paper, the only cue you have left is the writing style. I’m not sure whether I like this, since I appreciate good design and layout in a website or magazine, but then I also appreciate not having ads and other webpage cruft crowding my eyes when I’m trying to concentrate.

On a similar note, I find the iPad’s lack of email and chat notifications to be refreshingly helpful in keeping me focused on what I’m reading. Like the iPhone, the iPad doesn’t have ‘windows’ – it has apps that fill the screen, so reading – whether in Instapaper or apps like iBooks or the FT or New York Times – is a much more intimate and less distracting experience than on a computer; the text fills the screen without any wasted space or other windows competing for your attention. Even the ads look better.

What’s more, the iPad’s size means that it can be carried around for reading in various odd environments, like while cooking or walking between rooms. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s surprising how that portability makes you more inclined to read at any given moment.

All of this adds up the sensation that when you’re using the iPad, you’re not using a computer, you’re using a magical book. It’s hardly surprising, because the iPad shares so little with traditional computers – it doesn’t have a keyboard or a mouse, you don’t need to consciously close or open apps or root around for hidden windows – you just touch it, and things happen. As someone who’s grown up with computers, I find this very intriguing, since the iPad is basically a computer that doesn’t feel like a computer. I wonder where else Apple is going with this.


A few people have complained about the weight of the iPad – namely, that you can’t hold it comfortably in the air with one hand. They’re correct, but then I have more than a few books that the same could be said of, including almost every hardback I own (Neal Stephenson’s Anathem actually weighs more than the iPad); so unless you exist on a diet of light paperbacks, I consider talk of the iPad’s weight to be mere quibbling.

Reading and buying books

One real problem with the iPad is the absurd price of books in the iBooks Store. As the Bookseller has pointed out, the vast majority of books available can found for significantly less on Amazon UK, or on the Kindle Store, or in Waterstones. I certainly don’t value the convenience and speed of iBooks more than owning a physical copy, so I hope it doesn’t take too long for publishers to come to their senses (as they inevitably will, either through competition or piracy) and lower prices by, say, 50%. You need only look at the iBooks Store charts to see that people are extremely price sensitive – right now, none of the top 10 books are above £9, and the top two are £2 and £4 respectively.

Frustrated by the iBooks Store, I turned to the public domain and used Feedbooks to download Peter Watts’ Blindsight, a hard SF novel I’d been meaning to read for some time. Unlike the agony of adding books to my Sony Reader (admittedly, this was three years ago), it was pretty easy to add the Blindsight ePub file to iTunes and then sync my iPad*. I then spent a few hours reading the book, and you know what? It felt just like reading a normal book. I didn’t become blinded by the supposed harsh brightness of the screen, I didn’t go cross-eyed from the pixels, I just read it and enjoyed it. However else other people feel about reading on the iPad, I know that it works fine for me.

After years of being told that computers and the internet are rewiring our brains so we only read superficially, there’s finally a device that can change the tide and help us focus. It works for me – maybe it’ll work for you.

*Of course, it should be as easy as just clicking on a link to an ePub file in Safari on the iPad…

5 Replies to “Reading on the iPad is fantastic”

  1. The “magic book” thing seems to be coming up a lot. Coming back to Stephenson, I’ve heard it called the ancestor to the Young Lady’s Primer.

    What’d you think of Blindsight?

  2. Interesting post mate. I have been strenuously resisting getting an iPad (they just became available here in Aus.) In this house it would be immediately hijacked by wife and/or kids, so we would need at least 3 or 4 before i got a look in! Thanks for the instapaper link too, that seems like a cool tool.
    PS I really enjoyed Blindsight – read it on my iPhone (before I ditched it for a bog-standard Nokia)
    PPS 2012 – crew 9 reunion? where & when??

  3. I liked Blindsight – some very interesting and original ideas from a cognitive neuroscience perspective, although like a lot of hard sci-fi, it’s pretty bleak and depressing. I didn’t really connect with any of the characters, but still, it was a good read.

    Reunion sounds good!

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