Multimodal Reading

7 min read — #Learning #Technology

Not all mediums of reading are created equal.

Books are incredible. They’re even better when you can get them for free. However, one thing that I struggle with is figuring out what to read with the vast quantity of options available. One thing that has helped me is segmenting my reading into buckets based on the medium of consumption.

What does that mean? Today, there are more ways to read a book than to just buy a physical tome and read it cover-to-cover. Jeff Bezos helped give us the Kindle, which spawned a new era of e-readers. The Airpods democratized the ability to listen to audio whenever, skyrocketing the value-add of audiobooks.

I’ve spent a lot of this… interesting year reading books. I’ve experimented with multiple mediums and have found a flow that seems to work well. By the end of this piece, I hope to show you the pros and cons of each medium, and give you a more nuanced appreciation for reading as a form of knowledge absorption.

Audiobooks

Audiobooks are great for when you’re on the go or you’re doing something that requires your body, but not necessarily your mind. For me this is cooking1, exercising, or walking.

Multitasking2 in this way takes some time to get used to. You’ll likely find yourself skipping back in the recording to listen to something that you’ve missed. However, with enough practice you’ll learn to immerse yourself in the audiobook while performing other tasks. Efficient!

One of my favorite perks of audiobooks is the ability to speed up or slow down the recording. My girlfriend says it gives her anxiety, but I swear by 2x3 when I’m doing something that requires very little of my mind.

The main con of listening to audiobooks is that it’s very difficult to save passages or ideas for later. You have to pause, write down what you heard, and then continue4. There is however, technology working to solve this problem. Airr is an app that allows you to save snippets of audio through a gesture on your headphones (limited to podcasts for now) with some context and a possible transcript to save it for later.

E-books

Although there are many e-readers out there, I’m going to focus on the Amazon Kindle. One reason is that, as I’ve mentioned in my other piece, you can directly transfer your e-book rentals from Libby to your Kindle account and read on whatever surface you prefer.

This ability to have a single instance of a book and sync it to all of your devices is underrated. The Library of Alexandria meets our modern world when we can have continuity between reading with your phone while on the loo and reading with your tablet while curled up in bed.

Another useful feature of e-readers is the ability to highlight as you’re reading. This allows you to save things that stuck out to you with minimal friction, and also take notes on the context if you’re so inclined. I highly recommend you be inclined since it’s too easy to highlight random things and forget why you did so. For my Kindle users out there, you can use Kindle Notebook to access all the highlights you’ve made5.

The main con of e-books when compared to physical books is losing the raw tactile sensation of a book. Book purists will scoff at the idea that an e-book can be considered a book, but I’ll let you decide for yourself. Which brings me to…

Physical Books

There’s something delightful about holding the processed remnants of a tree6 in your hand. In my mind, it evokes an image of the tree of knowledge bearing fruits laden with the flesh of wisdom.

This is the medium that we’re most familiar with7. This can be a good or bad thing. Most people (myself included) did not like many of the books they were forced to read in school. I mean, how on earth can you expect a middle schooler to read The Scarlet Letter and develop a lifelong love for reading? Not to mention the droll textbooks that drone on about esoteric facts with no clear bridge towards practicality.

Unfortunately, there is a negative association that many of us have towards physical books. This isn’t good. If you couldn’t tell, reading is one of the best things ever. If you find yourself having baggage from being forced to read in school, try switching up the medium so that you’re able to give your brain another avenue8 for enjoying something. Eventually you’ll recondition your brain to have a love for learning like it was meant to, and you can enjoy books with a fresh perspective.

What’s Next?

Books have been around for over a thousand years. They’ve been accessible to the general public for hundreds of years. And now, they’ve been published and mass-produced in different mediums for a few dozen years.

We’re in the middle of a technological renaissance, and it’s certain that reading as one of the oldest forms of learning and entertainment will be remolded. Here are just a few ideas on what I think could be the frontier for the advancement of books.

Conclusion

Congrats on making it this far. Here’s a handy little chart, created by yours truly.


As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on these ideas and connect on Twitter.

Thanks to Macc for reading drafts of this.


  1. I cook the exact same breakfast every day: eggs, avocado, and toast. It’s nutritious and delicious and I will die on this hill (until I get sick of it). ↩︎

  2. The research on multitasking is pretty sound. There’s no such thing as multitasking. At best, we’re single tasking very inefficiently with lots of context switching. This is bad for focus and can cause fatigue. However, I have anecdotally found the combination of audiobooks and rote physical tasks to be magical. ↩︎

  3. One caveat for audiobooks is to always opt for recordings of the author reading their own book. Even if they’re not a professionally trained voice actor, nobody knows a book better than the person who wrote it. If you are #Team2x, be wary of tarnishing your mental image of the author. They’re going to sound like a chipmunk hyped up on too much coffee. ↩︎

  4. This is a tedious process, but it just may help you learn things better. In the Marvel learning meta-verse, there’s a concept called recall. Basically, by forcing yourself to summarize and write down what you’ve just heard, you’re committing it better to memory. ↩︎

  5. I’ve plugged my Libby Article enough in this piece, but one of the best features of Libby is the ability to save highlights to your Kindle Notebook even after your hold has ended. Some publishers have limits on how much you can highlight — but unless you’re trying to perpetrate e-book piracy through Kindle highlights, I think you’ll be fine. ↩︎

  6. If you are a fan of physical books but also want to reduce your carbon footprint… Buy used books! They’re cheaper and have much more character to them. Used book stores & Amazon’s ‘used’ section are great for this. ↩︎

  7. Unless like my little sister, you’re part of the fascinating experiment of a younger generation that has started using tablets & zoom instead of books and lectures for K-12 education. ↩︎

  8. Generally, I think one of the best strategies while learning is to switch it up. There’s a concept known as interleaving which involves switching up your learning strategy and topics for true, deep learning. ↩︎