Aesthetically, I prefer print to most digital text. The Kindle’s screen is crap at displaying photographs or charts, and while its e-ink text is easier on the eyes than an iPad, it’s harder on the eyes than a book. The gap only grows when it comes to reading most articles online: Magazines are still laid out with a care and thoughtfulness that even the best digital publishers can’t touch (except Vox, of course).
And yet I do virtually all my reading digitally, and for a simple reason: My memory is terrible. I forget 90 percent of what I read about 90 minutes after I read it. The Kindle’s highlights and notes are invaluable to me: I can find any passage that caught my eye, or any thought I cared enough to write down, anywhere that I happen to have an internet connection. Similarly, I use the online storage system Evernote to save passages or full articles I happen across online and may want to refer back to.
These storage solutions make everything I read more useful to me after I read it. My library goes from being inaccessible to being a sprawling digital memory. But both storage solutions are, to be honest, terrible. Amazon’s Kindle site feels like it was built in 2001: It stores your highlights and notes in the least useful ways possible, its search function is garbage, its user interface seems designed to frustrate, and it is extremely, exceptionally slow. Evernote’s text clipper is better, but it doesn’t work on my phone, which is where I end up doing a lot of my reading.
But all that’s in the past. I have figured out how to read online, and it is glorious.
In this, I am indebted to Diana Kimball, who developed this system for “a decent digital commonplace book system.”
Making Kindle highlights useable with Clippings.io and Evernote
It begins with Kindle. Clippings.io will export your Kindle notes and highlights in usable, searchable form — and then plug them directly into Evernote, so they’re available whenever you need them, and sortable in every way you might imagine. The difference here is profound: My Kindle highlights have gone from being available if I can remember what book they’re in to discoverable if I can simply remember any word from the highlight.
In practice, this means my relationship with highlighted passages and notes has gone from one in which I have to find them to one in which they can unexpectedly, wonderfully find me. A search for, say, “filibuster” will call up highlights and notes I wasn’t specifically looking for, and that I had actually forgotten, but that help with whatever I’m working on — and that sometimes prove to be the thing I should have been looking for in the first place.
Using Instapaper premium and Evernote to save article snippets
A lot of what I read, however, isn’t books. It’s news articles, blog posts, magazine features. I’ve long wanted a cleaner way to save the best ideas, facts, and quotes I come across. Now I have one.
Instapaper — which lets you save any article you find online and read it later on any device you choose — recently added a highlight function. The free version limits the number of highlights you can have to some absurdly low number. But if you pay for the premium service — $29.99 a year — it unlocks unlimited highlights.
That’s helpful, but there’s not much you can do with the highlights on Instapaper. But Kimball created an If That Then This recipe that automatically exports Instapaper highlights into Evernote. So now anything I highlight in an article — at least an article on Instapaper — is saved into the same searchable, sortable space that my book highlights inhabit. So basically anything I read in any digital format can be highlighted, and those highlights can be saved and searched. It’s wonderful.