Issue 091
May 8, 2024

New Pop-up Walk, Reading Digitally in 2024

Walking the Tōkaidō, reading on a BOOX Palma

Roden Readers —

Here we are! May! Good god! Let’s dig right in.

First, I’m running a new pop-up newsletter connected with my upcoming Tōkaidō walk. The newsletter is called The Return to Pachinko Road and you can sign up here. It starts on May 14, ends on June 1st-ish. I’ll be walking some 600 kilometers from Kyoto to Tokyo and, as usual, publishing a daily essay with photographs.

I haven’t done a walk + newsletter of this length in … a long time. I’ve done a few TOKIO TŌKYŌ TOKYOs (shorter walks w/ newsletter), and done some huge walks without newsletters (England; coast-to-coast), and some non-walks with newsletters (BASIE!BOP!JAMAICA!) but this old-school (classic, you could say) combo of physically-rigorous solo-walk asceticism combined with daily long form bloviation and photographs (and, probably also binaural podcast / YouTube upload) hasn’t been done for a few years (!!). Sign up if you’re game, it should be fun:


Second, good bud Robin Sloan’s new book, MOONBOUND, is coming out in about a month and I’ve been very keenly observing his language around preorders. (Because I, too, will be deploying lots of preorder solicitations in the not-too-distant-future for Random House TBOT.) Language powerful and full of truth: As a “consumer” you have a weirdly disproportionately large influence over a book’s future by way of preordering. From Sloan:

Preorders are all counted in the first week of a book’s publication, regardless of when they were placed. The preorder game therefore focuses a diffuse field of interest into one bright spot: maybe sufficient to ignite an engine, and really launch a book into the universe.

There’s aren’t many capitalistic levers of this size accessible to mere consumers. Books — novels especially — operate on such a freakishly micro scale (literally thousands vs tens-of-thousand or hundreds-of-thousands or millions like so much else in media) that banging a preorder drum until you’re blue in the face is a pretty critical (if humbling) author activity.

Sloan’s also writes about a comic book parable in his latest newsletter. This ‘graph in particular really hit home for me:

Isn’t the post-1970s politics of the U.S. the techno-organic virus, and this country’s deep creativity the mutant marvel, all our world-historic wealth and ingenuity bogged down by the struggle to keep this thing from going off the rails?

I think about this constantly. CON-STANT-LY. How our superpowers (not just of the US, though especially of the US, but also all of humanity) are sucked up by fighting off really dumb, atavistic impulses, at the expense of ever-more breathtaking advancements and pulsing, rich lives for all. Well, MOONBOUND is nothing if not an optimistic take on what could be. I loved the book (truly, I gladly read it twice; once in embryonic form and once in (near) final form) and I hope we all get to find out what! happens! next!

(I’m linking to Amazon (affiliate links!) up there simply because it’s the least fricative of ways to buy books, and while Amazon is certainly not ideal, anything to push along the buying of a book — to minimize the waffling of preorder or no-preorder — is, in my opinion, useful (if not wholly Good). But of course please preorder from a site like if it doesn’t get in your way!)

Palma in palm

Digital Reading in 2024

A long time ago, in a universe far, far away, I used to write about / really care about digital reading. A whole chapter of my life / career pivoted around digital reading and books, what could be, and I travelled the world (?!) talking about this stuff. I lectured at Yale for nine years about this stuff! (“Margins”!!) But I haven’t really talked about reading on a screen in a long time. Mainly because: It’s been boring / depressing. Not much has happened. Patents and monopolies chopped the feet off digital books. Well, I’m happy to report that I think — I THINK — something is once again maybe — just maybe — happening:

This little device pictured above — the BOOX Palma (Amazon affiliate link which will make me literally tens of dollars in aggregate) — has transformed my digital reading habits for the better. But before we get into why and how and why now, a little background might be instructive:

I love reading. (Perhaps you do, too!) Now, there are many forms of “reading,” and you can spend your whole day doing “reading” and not actually do the kind of reading we love. The kind we love is focused, challenging, sustained, with a pen in hand, making note of new turns of phrase and peculiar, precise words, and feeling our brains get ever-so-slightly reconfigured by the text. The kind of reading we love requires a piece of text be worked over so many times that the author probably never wants to see it again. The kind of text that has been squeezed through a dozen gates of betterness and its darlings have been serial killed and it has benefited from the acute eye of a shrewd editor. (Ed: Basically, the opposite of what you’re reading now.) And if you were to compare that text to its first draft, you’d be made woozy by how far it had come.

The easiest way to do this kind of reading? Pick up a physical book published by a publishing house that cares without compromise. Book at the ready, you now take your phone and, ideally, put it in another room. (Thirty years ago, I may have written: “Now, unplug your telephone from the wall.”) Don’t even have that dopamine bastard within earshot. One little buzz of an incoming something-something will break the spell of the book, send your mind racing with casino chemicals. You think I’m exaggerating! I haven’t slept with a phone in my bedroom in over a decade — I get a lot of good reading done at night in bed.

This is all a prelude to consider digital reading which, quite frankly, has been in a pretty bad state for a while. At least for the kind of reading we’re talking about — sustained, unbroken-concentration reading. Largely, this is a container issue, in that our containers are just so deliciously optimized for not reading. Our phones, tablets, laptops — all great at doing everything but reading. Which is why E Ink devices like Kindles were so seductive and promising. They contain all the good of digital (lots of books on hand, portable, easy highlighting, note-taking, etc) with, usually, none of the non-reading nonsense (apps, social media, streaming services) and even some of the affordances of a physical book (reflective non-backlit surface, long battery life, etc).

But something happened with Kindles — Amazon sort of gave up on them. Maybe Kindle books don’t sell as well as they had hoped. Or maybe they just realized that digital book sales were a rounding error of a rounding error on their bottom line (one year of Kindle sales == 10ms of AWS revenue). Or maybe it was just that once, long ago, Bezos was the Kindle figurehead, the guy pushing the platform along, and since he left the product has languished. Whatever the reasons, reading on a Kindle has brought little additional joy to reading over the years, and its somewhat abandoned state is disheartening to any ardent reader of our time.

Are Kobo and Nook viable alternatives? Maybe? But not really — too proprietary? Not bringing much more to the table than a Kindle does? Basically just “Not Kindle” as their value proposition?

Which is why I was shocked to learn about the E Ink computer company BOOX. Shocked because nobody had told me about them before, and because their devices looked … really good? I learned about BOOX because a company I’ve long followed and admired — Readwise — asked me to be an advisor. I did a call with Readwise’s CEO and we talked about digital reading. I’ve been using Readwise services — and paying for them — for nearly a decade. I’ve had Readwise suck up my Kindle highlights and save them for as long as that service was available. And through the use of a Readwise Obsidian plugin, I have a locally-stored Obsidian Vault with a full archive of all of my Kindle highlights and notes, with deep-linking into the Kindle app, and highlights from any long form articles I’ve read. Because that’s really where Readwise sings — they have a fabulous long form reading, meta-data-editing, article-organizing platform called Reader. Readwise’s Reader app is available on Android. BOOX is an Android E Ink computer. Reader (that’s you, not the app), I was curious.

BOOX has a rather confusing lineup, but the two devices I grabbed are the BOOX Palma and the BOOX Tab Mini C. If I had to recommend one, it would be the Palma. It’s just too delightful to have a smartphone-sized E Ink device purely for reading joy and reading joy only. The Palma is ethereally light (167 grams by my scale), and yet feels well-made. I shove it in pockets and bags and never worry about it. (Mine came with a free case that felt so terrible I threw it away; and anyway, it’s nice unsheathed, nimble in hand.) The battery easily lasts … a week? (at least a few days) … despite reading on it for hours each day.

Reader in Obsidian
Reader highlights imported into Obsidian

The Readwise Reader app imports long form articles with aplomb. Parses them almost always perfectly, and paginates fabulously. It also OCRs non-insanely-typeset PDFs into device-sized typographic goodness. The pagination is key because the Palma has volume buttons you can use as page-scroll buttons. It’s a one-handed reading wonder. And it really emphasizes just how uninterested Amazon has been in pushing / pulling / exploring the shape of digital reading these past 15+ years. Once you hold a Palma, you realize that for most situations it’s an ideal reading container. On the train? In line? In the waiting room at the doctor’s office? I’ve carried my Palma with me every day for the past three or so months with the goal of reaching for it rather than my iPhone. I call it the Gentle Librarian. Soft screen, clean interface, no SIM card and so mostly no internet (it loads up with new articles while at home on Wi-Fi; I can always tether to my phone to update or add something new to read on the go), a refresh rate that is plausible enough on which to watch movies (!! hyptonotizing, actually, like watching a magic trick, like what Victorians may have imagined “computer screens” to look like) but not really responsive enough to seduce you into installing social media apps. There’s a lot of friction in this little bugger, and it turns out a bit of friction is a good friend of the kind of reading we love.

I’ve installed the Kindle app and Reader app and that’s it. That’s all I touch on this guy. Yes, you could buy an iPad Mini or an old iPhone and do sort of the same thing — but … that glossiness … that Ferrari engine screaming to peel out-ness … it’s there, right under your fingertips in a way that the BOOX simply doesn’t have. I don’t know what processor or OS BOOX is running and quite frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. It turns out that we mostly figured out palm-sized touchscreen interfaces about a decade ago, and everything else since then has been icing on the cake (or regressive, really; a home button will always be a simpler interface than an up-swipe). iOS, Android, whatever — it’s all just a degree in one direction or the other. They all work fine.

It also turns out that the Kindle app on a BOOX is basically as good a user experience as reading on a native Kindle itself. The only annoyance I can find is that — because of Google Play Store rules — you can’t buy books directly from the app (honestly … these app stores …), so you have to sign in to Amazon on the BOOX browser, buy there, and it appears in the app. But the app itself functions identically to a native Kindle device. Which makes sense: “Fire OS” (Kindle’s OS) is just modified Android.

So why buy a Kindle today? Absolutely no reason I can see. (Except, well, they’re cheap — but with that cheapness comes their hobbledness.) The best feature the Kindle ever had — by far — was their infinite worldwide cellular connectivity. That was truly magical, special, and only possible by a company of Amazon’s scale. The second-best feature was E Ink. But E Ink has now trickled down to the masses, and there are many more opportunities than just hardware Kindles to read on E Ink. In my estimation: Kindle hardware has no moat.

If you like Kindle-sized devices, the BOOX Tab Mini C is basically a Kindle++. The build quality is fantastic, feels extremely “premium” in hand (a little heavy if anything), and the battery seems to last longer than any Kindle I’ve owned (Kindles always seem to mysteriously eat batteries). My Tab Mini C came with their stylus for free and it’s … fine? I wouldn’t recommend it as an add-on, but take it for free, why not. As we’ve noted, the Kindle app on a BOOX is the same as the Kindle app on a Kindle. But not only do you get a Kindle with the BOOX, you get one of the best long form reading and note-taking apps with Readwise Reader.

Some things I adore about Readwise Reader: Solid typography, excellent pagination (seriously, I love how they paginate articles — vertically, sensibly, for easy highlighting across page boundaries), being able to double-tap on a paragraph to highlight the whole thing (much easier than fiddling with sentence highlights, and often you want paragraph context anyway), and built in “ghost reader” functions which provide LLM-based summaries (useful to quickly remember why you saved a particular article) and also LLM-based dictionary / encyclopedia definitions (which have so far been pretty good? although I’d love to be able to load my own dictionaries into the system). I also love that Reader’s web app feels like a kind of “control center” that allows for easy editing of article metadata and more. Install the Obsidian plugin, and you have a full repository of reading history and notes, in Markdown, on your local machine. Reader also has Chrome / Safari plugins that make for one-tap adding to your article Inbox. If you copy a URL and open the Reader App, it’ll automagically ask if you want to add that article to your queue. Lots of nice affordances.

Reader on the Web
Reader on the web

But for me, the fact that Kindle books and Long Form articles can live side by side in perfect harmony is the true killer “app.” I’ve long since tried to shoehorn long form into the Kindle through various jankeries, but it’s never worked reliably, and organization has been terrible — a big mess overall. Now? Sublimity.

Are BOOX devices perfect? Hardly. Word has it they are abjectly terrible stewards / out of compliance with GPL license expected practices. For users, this means almost nothing. But it does mean that the company is kind of being an open source asshole, which is not cool. It also means you don’t know what’s going on with their code. Maybe don’t run banking software on these things? Fire OS, Amazon’s Android fork, “complies” in the sense that they release their source, but only for GPL-specific parts (thereby rendering it almost useless). So you also don’t know what Kindle code is really doing under the hood, either.

Overall, I’m inspired and happy — happy to have found a durable solution to a non-trivial problem: How do you engage with deeply researched, lovingly edited texts that exist mainly (if only — increasingly only) in digital form? Personally, I cannot sustain attention on a text longer than five-hundred words on my laptop or phone. Something broke in my mind a long time ago with respect to these devices. When I write on my laptop, the internet is off and I’m in a full-screen mode, light text on a dark background. That keeps me grounded. But now, when I encounter a long form piece that looks fantastic, I throw it over to Reader. No longer a Graveyard of Good Intentions — with my Palma in pocket, I plow through my queue (or “Inbox” in Reader vernacular). It’s inspired me to dig through the archives of The Paris Review, load up with old author interviews. Again, unlike dumping these into my Kindle, there is no fear of “contaminating” my library view.

In the end, this all may sound silly. But I suspect the way I feel above is not unique. You, too, may have been broken by whatever chemical sorcery happens when you pick up an iPhone. And you may have been disheartened (if only subconsciously) by the state of Kindle reading. For the first time in about a decade, it feels like moats may be collapsing, and that is, indeed, an exciting thing.

Readwise, too, is an interesting company. Bootstrapped. No breathless whispering of Mark Andreessen across some gilded dinner table. Just a real company making real money by selling useful services around reading. What a thing! A company that loves reading and thinking about reading and meaningfully engaging with reading. If you have any feature requests or bug reports, shoot them over. If you grab a Palma, let us know how your reading experience goes. Readwise is a nimble operation. They’re listening.

Every few years, I’ve upgraded my Kindle and I’ve never been “delighted.” The platform has long since felt flawed across many axes. The Palma is the first time I’ve been delighted by a new digital reading device in a long, long time. Now, with E Ink companies like BOOX we can finally untether the quietude of E Ink reading from proprietary hardware. It’s a big win, I feel, for us readers. And seems like — maybe — a first step towards even bigger wins.

And it doubly seems like I’m not the only one who had never heard of BOOX. I offhandedly mentioned the Palma on Threads a month or two ago — just a little peep into the ether — and never have I gotten so many emails and texts and messages from people who bought a Palma and are loving it. Clearly this device is striking a chord, itching a long-standing reading itch!

OK, that’s all I got now! I’m shooting a Japanese TV show this weekend, and then flitting off to Kyoto to ready my soul and soles for the Tōkaidō walk that begins on Tuesday morning, four a.m. departure time. Sign up for The Return to Pachinko Road to follow along.

Thanks, and read well,