Amazon, Where’s My Readfit?


TW Column by David Biddle​

How to Become a Healthy Reader


"My Reading Stats So Far" (Goodreads) © Louise Yang

I love my Fitbit wristband. It tells me how many steps I take every day and converts that into miles. It reminds me to exercise if I’m slacking off and shows me maps of the hikes I take in our woods. It even logs my sleeping activity. 

Last weekend, I got an email from the Fitbit company that told me I’d walked 500 miles since I began wearing the wristband last August. I was impressed with myself! A hundred miles a month is pretty decent for a slightly overweight, sedentary writer with bad knees and a left ankle that needs arthroscopic surgery. 

Wearable fitness trackers are popular because they allow users to monitor their own behavior—and to change it. From my Fitbit Flex and the Garmin Vivosmart to Jawbone's UP and the Misfit Flash, these compact personal-data collectors help track workout time, calories burned, and other measures with simple graphics. Pact, a smart phone app with the tagline “Commit to you,” even offers monetary rewards and punishments if you don’t meet your weekly gym goals.

So, why don’t we have “ReadFit” to encourage healthy reading? 

Of course, e-readers such as Kindles and Nooks maintain a database of all the titles you buy. While I’m reading an e-book, I’m told how far I’ve gotten through it in percentage terms—or how many minutes I have left to read in a chapter.

But where's my report on how many books I purchased in 2014 and how many I actually read? How about a daily word count goal, with a weekly graphic that shows whether I attained my goal? What about a bar graph that displays how many genre novels vs. literary titles I read this month?

Most of us bookworm types believe reading is a healthy activity, good for the mind and spirit. Becoming more mentally fit matters for both career and personal reasons. I’d even say reading is good for what ails the modern brain—and that raising healthier readers is good for the culture. For gee-whiz reasons alone, I’m also ready for real twenty-first-century books, not just text on a screen.

As far as I can tell, e-reader apps haven’t evolved much beyond the prototypes that hit the scene in 2007. It’s as if the companies involved cobbled together old code from Adobe PDF Reader 1.1 and made it seem just cool enough, with page-flip graphics and social media links. Functional? Yes. Innovative? No.

Don’t get me wrong: I like the e-book reading experience. But considering how quickly tech products evolve and change to capture market share, you’d think e-readers would provide much more information by now. Certainly, we should be able to do more than connect e-readers to Facebook and Twitter—a dubious goal, in any case, given that “sharing” my star rating for a book also helps a number of these companies acquire more customer data about me.

Maybe Amazon’s managers think their “most popular highlights” underline option is really neat. I don’t. I want to set my own reading goals and to track how I do. My Fitbit step goal every day is 10,000 (I don’t reach that more than three times a week). I’d like to think I average at least 10,000 words a day on my Kindle when I’m using it—not a lot, I know; I only read at night before going to bed—but right now, I have no idea how much I read. None.

It’s true that online reading communities like Goodreads and LibraryThing have already established some of the statistical markers I'm talking about. Users key in information about all the books they've read and what they're currently reading. But inputting all that information is a big time commitment. I'd rather spend my time reading. Building a tracker right into the electronic book process would eliminate a lot of work for readers.

And here’s the kicker: If, say, Barnes & Noble had a cool app that told me how fit I was as a reader, I’d dump my Kindle (used by default) and Amazon in a Seattle minute. Modern e-readers have been around for a decade, and the lack of innovation makes me worry about what’s going on in the Pacific Northwest and Silicon Valley.

Then again, if Fitbit keeps it up, that company or another like it could buy out Amazon or Barnes & Noble in a few years. It could help users track data of all kinds and set personal goals. Think of it: Those of us wearing fitness wristbands (or earrings or necklaces) and reading on something like the "Actually Smart Nook" will be in good shape physically and mentally. Life doesn’t get any better than that.


Art Information

David Biddle

David Biddle is TW's "Talking Indie" columnist. He's the author of the novel Beyond the Will of God as well as several collections of short stories. As a freelance writer, David has published articles and essays in everything from Harvard Business ReviewHuffington Post, and the Philadelphia Inquirer to Kotori Magazine, InBusiness, and BioCycle.

For information about his novel and other writing, see David Biddle's website.

Just for the "flash" record, this column is under 800 words.


An interesting, if somewhat

An interesting, if somewhat marginal, personal experience to add to your good piece: there are certain "classics" that, over the decades, I have been unable to read cover to cover (or even sometimes cover to page 10). I must have tried to read Swann's Way a dozen times--in several different translations, in five or six sitting positions (never lying down), mornings-afternoons-evenings, with coffee-tea-wine--and never got past page 75. Then I loaded the book onto my iPad, brought it with me to the gym, hoisted myself up onto the stationary bike, and sweating and pumping my legs, read the entire tome in 60 minute segments. And loved it. Loved every word of it. Since that time I have completed seven more "unreadable" works--with great joy and appreciation--and am now looking ahead (with considerable trepidation) to Finnegan's Wake.

Um, I can’t be quite as

Um, I can’t be quite as enthusiastic here. While you’ve presented an intriguing proposal, READFIT would not be good for me. Setting goals and keeping track of how many words I read per day would be fun for a little while (because I read A LOT), but the moment the reading became a “have to” in order to get that brownie button at the end of the day, week, month, whatever, the fun would soon turn into drudgery. The tool (alas, like diet and exercise trackers have done) would eventually make me a slave to it and disappointed if I didn’t measure up to expectations.

Does it really MATTER how many words we read per day—as long as we’re reading? Whatever happened to the simple joy of reading for pleasure? Do those of us who love to read really need yet another electronic gizmoapp to get us started and keep us reading? I would imagine a READFIT app like you describe would be an effective tool for young children learning to read, but after that it’s the inevitable magic of story itself that keeps the reader enthralled and motivated. What matters should be that whatever the material we’re reading, regardless of the word count, it keeps us engaged, enjoying the heck out of the journey, and wanting to come back time and again for more.

I really enjoyed reading this column, David. Thanks. And just think. By doing so I got an additional 800 words under my belt today. 

Paula, I love this

Paula, I love this counterpoint. At the most basic level, you're right about intangibles that motivate readers. And yet, I think people read for all sorts of reasons, including the need to acquire usefdul information or to challenge themselves with new ideas. When it comes to mainstream reading habits, most folks don't read literary classics, the great philosophers, or social histories once they're out of school -- and school curriculums and deadlines are not so different from the personal goals David is talking about setting here. Indeed, in my adult-ed journalism courses, students often tell me they take the class just to do the reading; I'd add that the class structure holds them accountable and helps them track what they've read.

I agree that total word counts don't matter, but motivating myself to read difficult books -- like Swann's Way, which I've also tried and failed to read many times, Steve -- is a constant challenge even for this editor and publisher. What I love about the notion of reading Proust in gym-time chunks is that it (perhaps) makes such literary writing more accessible. Instead of being a huge tome to wade through, it becomes a series of flash excerpts that work on their own but also gather power and meaning as you go.

I used to keep track of all

I used to keep track of all the books I read every year with a designated journal page. I would finish a book and then jot down the title and author on that page, maybe just after finishing, or a few days later. At the end of the year I might have a list of 6 - 8 novels and a couple short story collections, maybe pieces of non-fiction. I try to do that even now, but it's not so easy. This Internet Influenza thing I've got just makes it so damned hard to get that focused anymore.

But I shouldn't have to do that at all with digital books. That's the point here. Yes, you can set goals, etc. But maybe you just want to know how your reading behavior ebbs and flows. Maybe you want to know how many books you read by people of the opposite gender. Maybe you want to know how many short stories you've read this month, or compare your fiction reading to your non-fiction reading. A lot of folks do their daily newspaper reading online now and even their magazine reading. Maybe you want to figure out the differential in reading time between books and other media.

So, I guess I differ with Paula about the virtues -- for me, anyway -- of tracking ones daily word count (or whatever the metric might be). I don't need to set goals to understand my behavior. I think it would be nice to know what ones average reading behavior is like. It might also be fun to see how it changes over time. I could care less if I hit my 10,000 step Fitbit goal. What's more interesting to me is that as a stay-at-home writer I still walked an average of 2 miles a day just puttering around my house last week. Same thing with my Prius. I always want to see our combined MPG above 50. In all honesty, we sit at about 38 (since we live in a city where there are roughly four stops per mile).

My biggest concern with this piece, though, was to point out the serious limitations of e-reading apps. It really does seem like all the players have no interest in innovation. The "ReadFit" concept is really just a start. I have a list of about 20 obvious issues that need to be addressed by the industry. It really does make me wonder if there's much vision on the book side of the digital equation.

Here's something that would be even cooler than ReadFit. Imagine a MediaFit capability where you could track into a single database all your TV watching behavior, video game playing, Internet shopping, blog reading, Facebook time, Twitter Tweeting, porn watching, email reading and writing, etc. etc. etc.. And then compare all of that information to how much time you spend being physically active and/or sitting quietly reading books. Maybe we should add into this side of the equation meditation or mindfulness or whatever the frick they're calling it these days. Boy, I think that data would be mind blowing!

...Cool? Depressing? ... Meh?

(It's almost baseball season!)

David, Steve, and Martha,

David, Steve, and Martha, forgive me if I came off sounding like a wet blanket. Certainly, an effective device that motivates one individual toward self-improvement, either mentally or physically, is a good thing. However, that same motivator just might become a stumbling block to another (thus, the plethora of self-improvement paths currently out there). As regards a motivator that gets people reading, and especially reading the “hard stuff,” if a READFIT propels someone forward toward reaching their reading goals, by all means, it should be cheerfully implemented. In my first comment I was just saying that for ME the READFIT wouldn’t suffice.

I, too, keep a running list of books and other material I've read during the year, and have done so since around 1980 or so. Revisiting this list from time to time gives me great pleasure, primarily because I can see how far I've come, and yes, how many goals I've reached. But I guess because I don't have much of an analytical mind and statistics don't thrill me, daily taking chunks of time for data input in order for an app to tell me what position I'm in just doesn't excite me all that much. But that's not to say such an app wouldn't be just the ticket for someone else! The excitement in your voice as you all write about such apps tells me that there no doubt are plenty of others who would share that same enthusiasm.

So, all that being said, I have a proposal for David. We’re talking as if the READFIT is already out there on the market when it is not. Why wait for Amazon, et al., to develop such an app? You could do it yourself and make millions. I'm serious.

PS: Oops! You did state in

PS: Oops! You did state in the piece that the ideal app would automatically gather all the data for you, thus eliminating any time-consuming data entry. This would be a good thing. :)

I don't think you were being

I don't think you were being a wet blanket, Paula. Far from it. You made good points.

As to your recommendation about developing an app, I had to laugh. I think it's pretty safe to say that writers tend to make bad business people ... certainly that's true for me. Who is that said? "Why am I a writer? Because I'm not good at anything else."

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