Between Shelves

The longer I use Readmill the more quickly I find myself falling in love. Aside from its clean interface and the fine typography though, the limited number of features don’t really leave much of an impression at first. It took a considerable amount of time for me to realise however, that Readmill is one of those exceptional apps that is better judged by what it doesn’t do; those missing features (what might be called distractions from reading) are entirely deliberate.

I wanted to write a little bit about this service because I’ve been looking for a trustworthy place to store all of my books and highlights for several years now. Although Readmill describes itself primarily as “a unique ebook reader for iPad and iPhone” the part that interests me the most is its web based, library building. And even with the short amount of time that I’ve spent with it, it’s safe to say that my hopes for it to succeed and flourish currently dwarves the other competitive reading apps and services in the same category. So I think it’s worth taking a closer look at trying to understand why it works so well.

Right off the bat you’ll probably notice how it deals with social stuff in a peculiar way. Your stream of friends and the books that they’re reading doesn’t interrupt your own reading and scrambles aside when necessary. Likewise, finding books to read within this stream leaves me without the programmatic responses of a Twitter feed or an Instapaper queue. That feeling of trying to catch up and read everything simply doesn’t exist within this service.

Readmill’s iPad app

Managing that balance between letting the network in and keeping it out of the way for a good read is more difficult than it seems. With my Kindle I feel entirely alone, as if I was reading a physical book, the connections between readers is distant. But the guys at Readmill clearly want you to take your time and enjoy the book you’re currently reading and then, perhaps later, take in a broad overview of your friends’ books that you might find interesting.

A few months ago I read Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler and it wasn’t until several weeks later that I realised how perfectly it captured my sentiments about this little application. In the extract below, the protagonist of the novel is imagining what reading can become and what sort of untapped potential, in the act of reading itself, is lying dormant. He wonders how it might stir if we were to dream beyond the page or the spine:

Your reading is not solitary: you think of the Other Reader, who, at this same moment, is also opening the book: and there, the novel to be read is superimposed by a possible novel to be lived, the continuation of your story with her, or better still the beginning of a possible story. […] Does this mean that the book has become an instrument, a channel of communication, a rendezvous?

When the author describes these possible stories and this rendezvous between novels, my mind instantly hops around the idea of plugging our books into the web and connecting all of the dots and nodes in between. I dream of how the network splits the books further and further down into segments and searchable components, easily referenced at any given moment. With the ability to trace a person’s thoughts through a text they can become something more than what they were; we can make these books our own. So, as my mind swims through through all of this, I can’t help but dream of all the possible stories that will live online.

But what about the shelves?

Much as been written about how ebooks should be sold and how they should work; the format, the typography, the surface level of a particular application or its interface. But how do we go about finding the right place to collect all of our long form digital readings? What criteria should we use to judge these new reading services by?

Whenever I see folks hunched over their phones at a bar, or reading their Kindles in coffee shops, these are the questions that I find myself trying to answer. But these questions can be easily summarised: is the platform flexible and trustworthy for the future?

Pages from an early 16th century book

At the moment we must secede this point – companies that often conflict with our own desires are truly in control of our digital libraries. Amazon for example, lock their books’ contents to a particular format, and in so doing, limit all of the opportunities between them. DRM hurts books and the libraries that hold them, it’s as simple as that. But what might be considered a problem of standards, much like in the early days of the web, we find that other problems unfold when we try to envision this library of rendezvous and possible stories:

  • What happens if the service goes down, disappears, or gets bought outright?
  • Where can I buy ebooks and how easily can I move them about?
  • Are the interface’s typographic settings sturdy and confidently designed?
  • Will the service continue to be refined over its life cycle, or will it linger in obscurity?
  • How closely should our devices be connected? What benefit is there from this new form of sharing and cross collaboration?

It’s interesting to note that all of the questions we ask of software, websites and programmed applications have turned out to be the same ones we ask of the library.

Readmill serves most of these needs beautifully. Take a look at the book detail pages and try not to imagine how the network will continue to break down our books in the future. All books become satellites, tumbling into and around each other whilst the summaries and highlights that we share become available at any time. All of our libraries bubble into one.

This connection between reader, writer and the Other Reader feels closer in this app as to what Calvino imagined back in the 70’s. The social element between these components is a compliment, not a debilitating crutch that gets in between you and the next book you want to read. Unlike other services, Readmill doesn’t try to gamify the user experience either. There are no badges, no tokens or fancy illustrated circles that you win whilst finishing a book or performing a certain action. The reward is the reading.

Finally, there’s the ‘Send to Readmill’ button, a button I rarely click, and I adore it for this. I don’t use it as often as I do the ‘Send to Instapaper’ button or the Pocket browser extension. Books sit on the shelf and I go back to them if I get distracted or start another. The same cannot be said for the thousands of unread articles in Instapaper or Readability, hopelessly waiting for me to return. This is because ultimately I want my library to be filled with items that I’ve read and contributed to, a library where sometimes other books tumble in from friendly recommendations. But there needs to be a slowness, a certain pace to all of this activity.

At the moment Readmill aligns with these ideals nicely. The standards are open, they have an interesting but overlooked API and the multitude of libraries within are in reach and, when necessary, distant from one another. It pushes ever so slightly in the right direction of that dormant possibility between books and asks us to reconsider the social dominance of the stream. But even more importantly, it persuades us to spend a few quiet moments with the text, the other reader and our libraries.