By-topic, multi-book reading

Reading is an activity that can improve everyone’s life. This is why we need to ensure that more people have access to information and that it doesn’t stay withhold from them. The information by itself isn’t valuable unless it finds a person applying it in practice. This practice then is what allows new information to appear, which then alters the way we perceive our previous knowledge. It allows everyone to learn from each other and move forward, so we must keep and encourage it.

Very often information is widely available where it’s not needed and very often it isn’t available where it’s most needed. We also don’t know what to read, because we don’t know yet what we don’t know. We read without understanding; time pressure makes our learning shallow. Our mind wanders around faster than we can move our eyes towards the next letter. We often skip content to finish sooner and so we pretend to have learned something, deluding ourselves. Many people in the world are still illiterate and in our fast small world, we don’t even think what it could be to experience the world through their lens.

The Internet provides information to many, but this doesn’t come without disadvantages. On the one side, people with access to it can read anything they want, but on the other, they have to choose their content from a pool of many duplicates that exist in a variety of forms that are unknown in advance. The point-and-click behavior means that a reader on the web experiences fragments of information, hence our fragmented attention. A topic isn’t necessarily kept constant by gradually increasing its difficulty; it is allowed to vary and to follow the reader’s rhythm of spontaneity on his/her way through various links, ads and traps towards an unknown end. Before we had the chance to think of the potential use of something new, we are already thinking of something else. Rarely do we remember that we read the way an author of a publication wants and not the way we want it. It’s not surprising then that we see so many links “inwrought” in texts in subtle ways. This shows that we are more often seen as buyers than readers. We must have the flexibility to compose our own continuous content from the fragments we come across, to seek whether these fragments are truly related in a way that enhances our current situation before we decide to invest our time in them.

Reading by topic allows us to concentrate on one thing until we gain a better understanding of it. But for this to be possible, we need lots of content, which can become costly very fast. Even a book on a certain topic will have many different subtopics that may not be of our interest. Continuous reading from start to end most often makes sense when we are absolutely new to a topic and we want to have at least an overview of the big picture. But once we know more about it, certain things will start to repeat themselves in the various sources we come across, which will start to waste our time. Repetition can be a good thing, but not when there is too much of it. The more information we have, the more important it becomes to choose the right content.

We may discover that two different books have more things in common on certain subtopics that happen to be our interests. But if we view them separately, we may think that something is missing in order to provide more depth. Very often authors include lots of interesting information on different subtopics, because they don’t know in advance what could be interesting to a reader. A selective reader may choose to read only the chapters of the two books whose subtopics intersect, e.g. to read horizontally rather than vertically. This means that we need a way to evaluate the content for the strength of its relationship to what we have read previously or what we already know. The best way to do this may be side-by-side. We have to think of the content “direction” and then stay away from materials that don’t comply with it. Very often one book references another, but if we place them next to each other, the result may not be what we expected. We also can’t conclude that materials that were cited very often will be useful in our context. Everyone should be able to evaluate the content from their own perspective to decide whether it furthers their interest.

Once common topics are found in two different books, we can “bind” them, which enables navigation only within the boundaries of interest. This prevents us from reading something we don’t want and it helps to ensure that we stay on topic. It is not page-by-page movement in both books as this isn’t guaranteed to make relationships visible. In this simple demo, navigation is possible either through scrolling over a pane or through the arrow keys (left/right to switch active pane, up/down to go to next/previous page respectively). Initially I thought of assigning keys to move each pane independently (think pinball handles), without the need to switch them. Although this could have been more usable, I disliked the fact that some of the keys I wanted to use were already taken by the browser; choosing others would have disturbed symmetry on the keyboard. The Tab key could have been used to switch the panes (following the example of some native software), but this could make the navigation of future interface elements impossible. For reasons of simplicity I have assumed that each book chapter has the same number of pages and that each chapter has its own topic. If we come across chapters of a common topic (try: 2 & 3, 5 & 1, 8 & 7), we are asked whether we want to bind the books. If we choose so, we can only move through the pages these chapters define. Once we ask the user for the first time whether he/she wants to bind the books, we don’t need to show the message repeatedly. Instead we can show a simple icon at the same place once the meaning behind it can be easily derived. Two separate semicircles indicate that the books aren’t bound yet, but that this is at least possible. A full circle indicates that the two books are bound. Space bar allows us to bind/unbind easily. There is an initial flash of unstyled content as we load all pages at once and then choose which one to show. We also try to keep track of which pages the user was reading the last time.

There are a couple of problems with this approach. First, for books to be available for such reading, the authors must have chosen to provide them in a format that allows for them to be easily parsed and presented. I have placed two inactive “Load book” links to mark that this functionality is needed. Without it, no books will be available for such reading. Second, the books must be tagged in a universal and well-accepted way, so that topic comparisons can happen instantly as the user is moving across pages, without the need to constantly look at the table of contents in both books. As topics aren’t always clear and many interdisciplinary works exist, this in itself presents a real challenge.

As already mentioned, multi-book reading isn’t always appropriate and it would be close to impossible on current e-book readers due to their limited display size. But I still hope that we can read this way sooner rather than later.