I often wish Readability and Instapaper were still partners, but one thing’s for sure: Friendly rivalry is great for innovation. The team at Readability, fresh off their gorgeous iOS app release, are loosing another great idea onto the e-reading world: a free service called Readlists, which CEO Richard Ziade describes as “mixtapes for reading.”
The idea is so simple that it’s surprising it hasn’t already been done. Readlists lets you bundle up online articles into personalized e-books that get sent to your Kindle, iPhone, or iPad. The “mixtape” metaphor becomes clearer when you see the dashboard of Readlists that Ziade and his team have assembled to get the ball rolling. Web-design maven Jeffrey Zeldman, for instance, has a 19-article bundle called “User First, Mobile First, Content First”; there’s also a six-piece package called “All About Analog Synths” and another for “Longform’s Best of 2011: Tech.” (I snapped that one up quick.)
The bundles reflect the quirky personal tastes of their creators, just like a good mixtape should. And that’s the best part about Readlists: Anyone can make one, not just a preselected klatch of brand-name authors or cool-kid “curators.” “The idea of ‘mixtapes for reading’ struck us as really powerful,” Ziade says. “We want anyone to be able to curate around stuff they’re passionate about or just anything. We think it has all kinds of interesting possibilities in education, academia, and just about any specialized topic.” Each list lives on the open web, outside of any walled app ecosystem, and the e-book packages that Readlists generates are in the open ePub format.
And that bundling is the subtle genius of Readlists. Timeshifting or screenshifting reading material from the web into cleaner, quieter offline queues (as Readability does) is certainly convenient, but before long, it just turns into yet another endless, overflowing “river” of stuff to manage. But Readlists’ packaged e-books feel more manageable. They end; you can actually finish them. And just like a mixtape can get across a specific kind of statement different from a polished album, so can Readlists communicate ideas and points of view differently than books. I’d love to see writers like Tim De Chant, Robin Sloan, or Bret Victor make a Readlist of their “greatest hits.” But I’d love to see them make Readlists of what they’re reading even more. Or both at the same time!
The future of reading is going to be in these kinds of interface and user-experience experiments–finding new ways to mix and match and remix and repackage the stuff we want to pay attention to in ways that would seem alien to the readers and publishers of even five years ago, but feel inevitable and necessary now. Readability, Instapaper, and their imitators have more or less solved the 1.0 problems of digital reading. It’s exciting to see a product like Readlists reaching into new territory.