A year ago this weekend, with quite a bit of trepidation, I bought myself a Kindle. I grew up in a house full of books and have always been a devout dead-tree type of reader, and working in publishing has given me a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to a certain company that starts with A. Buying a Kindle felt a bit like pinning said A (lowercase, upright, sans serif) in scarlet to myself. On the other hand, working in publishing also means a not-insignificant amount of time spent reading books before they’re actually physical books, which was getting impractical since I don’t read long things well or cheerfully on a computer screen.
So I made a compromise with myself that I could try a Kindle and just not put any paid content on it, and a year later I am very glad I did.
First, for context, a brief overview of what is on it:
- Aforementioned work reading, which goes faster and more pleasantly than on a computer.
- Out-of-copyright books: As someone who discovered freshman year of college that I just feel much calmer when in possession of a can of chicken broth, a brownie mix, and a Jane Austen novel, regardless of how often I have a chance to use any of them, this is basically a gigantic digital hug.
- Library books: I have become an e-book hold addict. I recently had five holds come in within 24 hours. I have memorized my library card number from signing in so often. Yes, I can get to two branches of the brick-and-mortar library reasonably easily, but I am also lazy, especially if the desired book is a novel I anticipate breezing through in a couple days.
- Longform journalism, via the fantastic Readability (see: reading long things on a screen, failing). The only downside here is not being immediately at Twitter to share with the Longreads community.
Metro rides have never been better.
But it turns out that my favorite thing about the Kindle is something I didn’t even know existed for the first couple of weeks, until rooting around its brain on my computer I discovered an unprepossessing .txt file called My Clippings. The document automatically collects notes and highlights across files–that includes files no longer housed on the device (say, articles you’ve read and removed or library books that have expired).
Now, let me be clear: I am not a scribbler in books. I am one of those snobby people who winces at books tented open by their spines, who religiously unfolds all dogears encountered, and who thinks writing in books is defacing them (unless it’s old writing, in which case it’s fine. I know, this is not rational.). I am also paranoid enough to care about what some future reader might think of what I mark.
But I’m also a magpie of phrases. The receipts, ticket stubs, and other scraps stuck in the books on my shelf don’t mark the last place I was reading, they mark passages I wanted to stick with me. But revisiting them is clunky.
Being a history nerd, I’d heard of commonplace books, particularly popular in 17th century Britain. In the simplest form, they were a collection of scribbles that stuck with the readerwriter, but there was typically some form of categorizing and/or indexing to help find those notes again. I’d always been drawn to the idea, but I’m simply not organized enough to make it work, especially when the notebook is inevitably across the room from the chair I’m reading in.
This is the problem the Kindle’s My Clippings solves, and I love it for doing so. Mine is now home to an eclectic dump of snippets, from a word or two to pages:
- snappy phrases (“Yet a sack, however decorously conducted, remains a sack,” Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (John Julius Norwich), Added on Monday, July 16, 2012, 08:58 PM),
- absurdia (“he is said to have visited London in 1611 and there to have seen a dead crocodile; and little else is known.” The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (James Gleick), Added on Sunday, August 26, 2012, 06:16 PM),
- wise life philosophies (“Sometimes You Just Have to Put on Lip Gloss and Pretend to Be Psyched” Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) (Mindy Kaling), Added on Wednesday, October 31, 2012, 10:56 PM),
- handy tips (“berries and lettuce stay fresher for longer in the fridge if you first plunge them in warm water,” Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat (Bee Wilson), Added on Saturday, November 24, 2012, 10:49 AM),
- things to remember to find and read (someday, ever) (“The Infinity of Lists” 127 Reasons Why We’re Fascinated By Lists (Jillian Steinhauer), Added on Friday, March 01, 2013, 10:43 PM),
- and shocking stats (“Of the twenty-eight women who have served as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, twenty-six were married, one was divorced, and only one had never married.” Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Sheryl Sandberg), Added on Friday, June 28, 2013, 12:20 PM),
- among others.
Sure, I could remember a tiny fraction of them on my own, but this is so much more powerful. My personal favorites are the ones I can no longer remember why I highlighted. One day it’ll come to me.
There are plenty of other technologies to explore if you like the idea but don’t have a Kindle–the idea of modern commonplaces has somewhat taken off. This was one of my first motivations for joining Twitter, although 140 characters is quite a limit. Tumblr and Evernote are also common comparisons.