Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

Screen Reading

26 Nov 2008

When I was in Grade 9 in 2004, I used the then popular peer-to-peer file sharing software Kazaa to download and read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on my dad's new 1,000 dirham HP palmtop. Well, there was no way I was going to buy the book. I treated the book like pulp fiction. In fact, you get more out of a book or novel if you treat it like pulp fiction, I find.

In the beginning, after every 10 pages or so of reading the e-book, my eyes used to get very dry and would start to burn. My eye power was already negative 2.5 and 2.75 by the time. To soothe my eyes, I'd play solitaire for about five minutes before getting back to my reading. When I was almost done reading the book after about two days, my mum caught me playing solitaire over breakfast and naturally assumed I had been doing nothing but playing solitaire all day on the palmtop. She then proceeded to promptly ban me from ever touching my dad's palmtop again. "Rajesh, you don't need a thousand dirham device to play solitaire!"

About a year and a few months down the road, we switched countries and my dad bought me my first desktop computer which I could use all to myself. This was Grade 10, arguably a little too late for a personal computer. I downloaded Kevin Yank's excellent "Build Your Own Database Driven Website Using PHP & MySQL" and finished reading the entire book in just under 10 days. This was on an LG CRT monitor. The kind that makes your cornea shrivel up after just an hour.

Sure, I spent a lot of time with watering eyes. I remember, my eyes were permanently red for a certain duration in Grade 11. But I kept reading. I couldn't get enough. Because Kevin's e-book was in PDF format, I couldn't change the white background, so I converted the PDF into HTML and applied my own custom CSS style sheet. I discovered that wheat-coloured text on a black background was much more suitable for bulk consumption.

Over the next two years, I ended up reading about 20-25 e-books back-to-back. I had the PDF I was reading always open so all my free time, even a minute, was spent reading. The books I read were mostly about PHP, MySQL, CSS, HTML, XML, Subversion, Ruby, etc. — the bulk of which form the expertise section of my resume today. The monetary price of all these books totaled a grand $0.00. The actual price should have been over $500.

I think the fact that the e-books that I illegally downloaded were all free is a crucial one. Because they were free, I was able to treat all these books as if they were pulp fiction: I'd read the books as fast as I could, suck as much juice from them, and then throw them away. The best part is that I always read a book only if I truly wanted to. The minute I came across a book that sucked even slightly, I'd throw it away without hesitation and go find something else better. It's a lot harder doing that with a book I had paid for. Like Life of Pi for example. I think if I had read the free electronic version of Life of Pi, I'd have deleted the PDF half-way through my reading. The only reason I finished the book is because I had paid for it and would've therefore felt guilty if I hadn't finished reading it.

I think it is important to read as much as you can. Especially the free stuff. Especially the stuff that you genuinely think is good. Because that's when you learn the most. And in the shortest amount of time. You can't necessarily go about printing everything you want to read. That would be a lot of paper. And paper sucks because it's very hard to find a particular paragraph you want to read again, sometimes after 8-9 months.

When I moved to University, I had my first LCD screen that came part of the laptop my dad lent me. This was a big leap from the LG and NEC CRT monitors I had been used to. I could now read twice as much before my eyes needed a break. This was a huge improvement and I only had everything to gain by taking advantage of it.

You want to master the skill of reading off your screen. I know the exact brightness my screen needs to be. I know the exact angle my screen needs to be tilted. I know when I need to change the background colour and to what. I know what the ideal font and the font size are. I know exactly how frequently I need to blink. I know exactly how often I need to look away. I keep my venetians open so I can stare into the distance every now and then.

Today, I spend a number of hours each week reading blogs, articles, essays, patents, research papers, short stories, news, wikipedia, magazines, comics, course notes, lecture slides, and emails. And all of this happens off my laptop screen. I can go on for about 6-7 hours staring at a screen with just two to three 5-minute breaks. Let's face it: if I had found reading off a screen uncomfortable and was too lazy to do anything about it, I would have never come across J.D.Salinger and Paul Graham — two of the foremost writers I have encountered to date.

The crux of the matter is that society and technology are moving more and more towards screen-based information delivery. So let's get used to it. Better now than later, right?

At the end of the day, he who is most well-read tends to be the best at what he does.

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