Skip to content

How we read now

My family is filled with big readers. Back when we were childless, my husband and I actually had a category in our Quicken account called “books.” The first time he quit his job to start a company and we were trimming expenses, that was one we targeted. Then we became huge consumers of the public library.

Once we had kids, our public library use and book purchasing went up again. Then we discovered audiobooks, and in the last few years have exhausted much of the library’s offerings on disk. Then came the smartphone revolution, and we started to have digital books, as well—both e-books and audiobooks.

Our various ways of accessing books have changed over the years, but here’s a list of how we’re reading now:

Buying books

We are part of the diminishing breed of people who not only believe that it’s important to keep print books in our lives, but we also support our local, independent bookstore. That’s not to say that we don’t succumb to the lure and ease of Amazon on occasion, but we think our local bookshop’s One Book Pledge is very reasonable. (Buy one book a month in your community rather than online.) It’s so important to have choice and variety, and local bookstores offer this. When we walk into our store, the books they display are tailored to the tastes of people in our community, and everyone who benefits from our purchase lives and works in our community.

Digital books

Smartphones have made a huge difference to my reading life. I have a crazy schedule, working in bits and pieces while I take my kids to classes or meet with friends for activities. (I’m typing this while my kids have their back-to-back piano lessons! Thank goodness for piano teachers with wi-fi.) Having both the Kindle and the Nook apps on my phone, as well as Google’s app Play Books, an Adobe Acrobat reader, and a Microsoft Office emulator, allows me to read books and documents anywhere. The Kindle, Nook and Google Play apps all sync automatically, and I can access documents in my Dropbox without even having to attach my phone to my computer.

This translates to a huge amount of new time freed up for reading. In the past, I had to remember to bring things with me, and usually didn’t. Now it’s all there. Reading novels in 5-minute pieces isn’t optimal, but it means that I am once more reading them rather than always forgetting them in their last-known location amidst the piles of books in my house. This is especially helpful with books that I’m reading for a professional purpose. For example, I just started a literature circle for teens, and I’ll be getting all the books we’re reading on my phone so that I have a chance of keeping up with the teens’ reading speed.

I haven’t had a lot of luck accessing free digital books. Of course, scanned copies of out-of-copyright books are freely available, but they are often translated with character recognition software and are sometimes close to unreadable. I’ve had better luck with getting ePub versions and reading them on my phone. However, I’m usually more willing to buy a cheap Nook version of an out-of-copyright book that’s been edited and prettied up. Our library has some e-books but the selection isn’t great, so this isn’t a great option for us yet.

One place that the library does offer a great e-book selection is in things like technical books and software manuals. This makes a lot of sense—why purchase the manual to software that will be out-of-date within a year? Now they just subscribe to a service that offers access to manuals and technical books, which makes a lot more sense.

Another e-book option worth mentioning is for emerging readers: Tumblebooks. This wonderful service has electronic books that have a recorded audio. As the audio progresses through the book, each word spoken lights up in red so that the child can “read” along with the book. It’s also good for second language learning—they have a good selection of Spanish and a smattering of other languages. (If you’re in Santa Cruz, click on “Internet Resources” then “Tumblebooks Library”—you have to sign in with your card number to get access.)


We have come to love audiobooks. We have two major reasons for audiobooks: The first is that if we listen to them in the car, there is peace for long (and short) drives. My kids love listening and it stops them from trying to annoy each other! The other reason we listen to them is that sometimes it’s great to hear the “right voice” reading out loud. We listened to the entire Harry Potter series, and it wouldn’t have been the same with my Midwestern rendering.

Our first stop for audiobooks is the library, which has many on disk. The problems we’ve found with this are:

  • We often don’t finish a long book before it’s due back and someone else wants it (solution: rip it to a computer, play it back at our leisure, delete when done)
  • Our library inexplicably often doesn’t have the first book in a series
  • Our library has more and more “Playaways,” these horrible little listening devices that are so low-powered that we have to turn our car stereo up to 40 to get it to play at a reasonable volume, with an unreasonable amount of hiss

We eventually caved in and got a subscription to Audible. After the teaser rate runs out, you pay about $15/month to buy one “credit”. Many of the books we were interested in cost not much more than a credit. Then we exhausted most of the newer books we wanted, and I realized that it didn’t make sense to buy older children’s books with credits, because they almost all cost under $15. Finally, I realized we weren’t getting our money’s worth and went to cancel. I knew from reading on the Internet that I could either choose to “pause” my account for three months a year (resulting in a 25% discount), or cancel my account, leaving full access to already-purchased books. I finally decided to cancel, wishing that they had a third, very cheap option where you could pay a small yearly fee to keep the account active and just pay for the books you wanted to buy. After going through many screens that tried to convince me not to cancel, I finally arrived at a screen that asked me, “If we offered you the chance to keep your account live for $9.99/year, would you do it?” Of course! So now I am paying $10/year and can still access their free deals, credit sales, and books that I want to pay for.

This all happened while I knew that our library offered free access to oodles of great audiobooks—but I’d never gotten the software to work on my Mac or my Android phone. Just this week, having told that fact to someone, I thought, Hm, when did I check that last? And lo and behold, they have finally fixed Overdrive so that I can use it. I’m very excited: a great Android app, a new app for my Mac that actually works, and access to tons of free audiobooks. (Free except for the taxes that I happily vote for every time I can to support our wonderful local libraries, truly a great use of our tax money.)

Radio programs and podcasts

I know families that are avid consumers of podcasts, and in fact my husband is one. But my use of them with the kids has been spotty. I’ve always been annoyed at having to sync my phone with my computer, and remembering to download the podcasts, and having to renew my downloads because I’d forget to listen for so long they’d get canceled. But in theory (and in practice for families that get into the swing of them) podcasts can be great. We like Science Friday, Boomerang, and a few others but aren’t currently listening to anything except on occasion.

I have, however, found app might might change that—NPR Player allows you to download content directly onto your phone, bypassing the computer. All of a sudden, I’m starting to listen to podcasts again. So this might be a new addition to our reading/listening lives.


It’s amazing how many choices we have these days. My mother had the attitude that it was good for kids to be bored sometimes. When my kids say they’re bored, however, I just answer, “You have GOT to be kidding.” With this much to read? Who could ever run out of things to do?

Posted in Education, Parenting.

0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.