10 Apps & Sites That Bring Back the Joy of Reading

You wouldn’t throw a fancy dinner party in a 7-Eleven. You wouldn’t hold a symphony concert in a subway station, or teach a meditation class on a tilt-a-whirl ride.

So why does anyone expect readers to read long articles on the Web?

Call me a traitor to my kind, but I think the World Wide Web is a terrible medium for long-form writing, precisely because of the mismatch between content and venue. The basic problem is that browsers are for browsing. Today’s commercial Web, where no morsel of exposition is more than one saccade away from a link, a logo, or an ad, is an impossible place to do any deep thinking.

No one designed this outcome. It’s just that the medium grew up so fast, evolving in less than 20 years from a hypertext file-sharing system at a European physics laboratory into today’s infinite digital bazaar. There wasn’t much time to think about whether it really made sense to translate our collective creative output into HTML, dump it onto Web servers, and pay for the whole operation with hyperlinked ads that, by their very nature, take readers away from whatever they’re trying to read.

Fortunately, there are folks scouting for ways out of this mess. Over the last few years, programmer-entrepreneurs like Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper, have come up with a series of clever applications for separating or “parsing” the Web’s text from its context. This new menagerie of minimalism includes browser-based apps that zap the clutter around Web posts and replace it with a peaceful white background. It also includes mobile apps that let you store these pared-down posts for on-the-go consumption whenever you choose. And in this general category, I’d also include a few new curation services intended to spotlight contemporary and classic long-form writing and make it easier to consume.

I’ve picked 10 of my favorite reading apps and services for quick summaries on the following pages. If you’re like me and you spend a lot of time using the desktop or mobile Web, yet you also love getting lost in a long, thoughtful non-fiction article, then you’ll find some of these services to be life-changing.

But I wouldn’t say that we’ve reached an apotheosis—not by a long shot. At best, the Zen approach to repackaging Web articles is only one element of the solution, and it’s not one that will scale up very well. Already, critics are arguing that this kind of republishing is impolite at best, copyright infringement at worst. As soon as the big online publishers realize how many people are bypassing ads by saving parsed text to Instapaper and the other reading apps, they’ll freak out, the same way broadcasters did when TiVo came along. (It’s no accident that people have called the reading apps “DVRs for the Web.”)

What’s needed now are business models that would make publishers happy about providing more content in these ad-free environments. But we’re a long way from finding payment mechanisms that appeal to readers—let alone equitable ways to split up reading-app revenue between publishers, authors, developers, and platform providers, as a tussle last year between Readability and Apple illustrated (more on that below).

For now, damn the torpedoes—here’s my list of the 10 most interesting and useful reading apps and curation services. I’m going to describe the apps first, because once you understand those, the curation services will make a lot more sense. (For a single-page version of this article that you can export to one of the reading apps, click here.)

First app: Clearly.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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