How I slowly read the internet

Now that I’ve misled you with that headline, I should clarify that I slowly read select snippets of content from the internet. As my wife has told our kids, “You can’t watch the whole internet!” and neither could I read the whole internet (obviously).

The system

I am constantly finding stuff I want read on the internet. Much of it is from blog posts or news articles, some is reference material that I want to save, books I want to find more about before deciding whether to add them to my reading list, things I’d like to buy but cannot afford, quotes, poems, the list seems to be endless. Rather than deciding for certain whether I will actually read any of this stuff up front, I simply save it into Evernote, my default tool for consolidating all this junk into one place. I use a paid account (currently the Plus tier at US$44 per year) which allows me to save up to 1GB of new stuff per month which is sufficient for my needs. There is a free version but I always exceed the maximum amount you can save on that.

Evernote has a tool called the ‘web clipper’ which copies a web page and saves it to my list of notes. The way I typically use this is to save the ‘simplified article’ version which effectively grabs the text, some images (not always all of them, this can be annoying) but minimal formatting and usually it leaves comments and advertisements out. As part of this saved file the original web address is included, an essential factor in how I finally use these notes.

So I end up with a huge folder in Evernote which I call my ‘inbox’. This contains everything I’ve saved but not sorted into other folders (Evernote calls them notebooks). Aside from a few specific notebooks such as one I call my ‘wish list’ (for all those things I’d like but can’t afford) and ‘to watch’ (for videos I can’t legitimately watch on my work computer!) I just work directly from my inbox which is sorted so that the most recently modified items are at the top of the list. This sort order is key to how my process works.

The reading

When I have time to do some reading I simply begin with whatever is at the top of the pile of notes, if that’s not appealing at the moment I scroll down until I find something that is. Then my weirdness kicks in… As I read a paragraph and move onto the next one I plonk the cursor at the end of the stuff I have read and keep a finger on the delete key. Visually this looks slightly odd on the screen as the stuff I have read is slowly deleted and what I’ve not yet read gradually moves up the screen. It seems daft, but I find that by doing this it is much easier to visually keep my place in what I’m reading and the slowness of the delete action causes me to slow down my reading and actually read it rather than scanning as I do on a normal web page. It also functions as a bookmark because what I’ve already read is deleted so I just pickup at the top of the remaining text. If I need to go back to stuff earlier in the article I still have a link to the original article.

Self-ordering

Because this is how I always use Evernote, my huge pile of 4244 notes (at exactly now, it will change throughout the day) is always sorted with what I most recently was reading at the top of the list. In most cases, what I want to look at first is likely to be the stuff in the top of this pile of notes so it’s reasonably easy to find. Other times I decide to let serendipity play a role and randomly scroll towards the bottom of my list to see what I saved a few years ago that is still in there. This can be a good way to find topic fodder for blog posts because it is a trove of interesting stuff that I’ve seen before, chosen to keep, but not done anything specific with it yet.

This is also where sorting of my notes tends to happen – once something has sat in my notebook for a while I’m in a better place to see whether it is worth reading or is a topic that is no longer of interest so can be safely thrown out. I find that such decisions are better made at leisure some time after the initial “Oh, I should read that,” moment has passed. It is an easy thing to clip stuff as I encounter it and then worry about sorting it later. (You may notice that this all works on the principle of the self-ordering heap, as I’ve written about previously.)

Slow

An inherent ‘limitation’ of this system is that the rate at which I read my notes is much slower than if I used something like Instapaper or Pocket, both of which I have used and are excellent ‘read-later’ apps. With those apps the rate at which I read is much faster, but there is a corresponding decrease in how much I remember. My Evernote approach is slower and clunky in comparison but the inefficiencies of reading slower, seeing the same article several times sitting on the top of my list and being sorted by last modified means that a sort of visual map is built in my mind of the topics I’ve been digging into recently and this can enable connections about stuff that is not topically related by is temporally related simply due to when I happened to see it in my list of notes.