Jaan Tollander de Balsch

Computer Science & Applied Mathematics

Reading and Managing Electronic Literature

The world is becoming increasingly more electronic and the internet is connecting the people around the world. The internet has increased the access to information and its quantity to the greatest as it has ever been in history. This has resulted in the rise of the popularity of electronic publishing and development of new technology for literature. To thrive in this new era of literature, one has to cultivate an efficient process for managing, reading and understanding it and utilize the capabilities of new technology. This article gives an overview of the process of reading, managing and understanding electronic literature, and explains the new technologies and how they are used in the process.

This is the introductory part of a multipart post about how to read and manage electronic literature. This part will explain the basic concepts about the reading process and technology related to electronic literature. Subsequent parts will cover in detail various reading and managing workflows for different types of content using specific software.

Why is Reading Important

Reading is a way to access the valuable information and insights that people have had and collected while working in particular field or technology without having to go through the same mistakes and the journey as the authors have. In other words, reading shortcuts the process of trial and error for learning making it an essential skill for any person who wants to learn new concepts faster and more efficiently. Reading gives a new perspective on the world improving your sense of what is possible. However, always accompany new information by a healthy dose of skepticism which prevents the knowledge from turning into constraints.

The Goal of Reading

The goal of reading for some may be simply the pleasure of reading and passing time, but most people seek to learn and understand new concepts. Learning and understanding should be the goal of reading and it should define the methods that are used. The methods for efficient reading include taking highlights and notes, writing about the subject, making connections to other literature and the world, and engaging with the community. It should be noted that most people are not accustomed to this because it requires significantly more thinking and work than simply reading. The read knowledge should be applied in practice. The outcomes of applying the knowledge may correspond to the expectation in the literature or create totally new knowledge which can then be written down and passed on to other people.

Finding Content

Finding good content to read can initially be challenging. One strategy is based on finding media, including podcasts, presentations, conference recording, and talks, where interesting people present their works, tell their story and deliver their message. This helps to create a connection to these people, validate their legitimacy, understand their values and develop a genuine interest in their content. The approach also acts as a filter because the guests have to be validated by the host, increasing the likelihood that their content is something that you would also value. Once you start reading the content of these authors their sources and the works that have influenced them might also begin to interest you. This is another way to find authors.

Components of Written Works

Reading and managing (electronic) written works requires understanding their components, the content and the metadata. Next sections will explain the meaning and further break down of these components.


Content refers to the informational part of the work. The internal structure is different for different types of content, for example, books versus articles. Here are some important structural elements and explanation about why they are relevant:

  • Body refers to the main part of the work, the part that contains the actual content of the work. The body is grouped into sections by the common themes or topics. Each section can also be grouped into subsections. Sections consist mainly of text, images, and citations, but may have special elements, such as formulas, equations or source code, depending on the context.

  • Contents, or alternatively Table of Contents, is a list of section titles with their page numbers. Contents have two purposes: To aid in navigating the work and to inform about the general structure and grouping of the topics in the work. Electronic formats of literature usually have contents integrated into the format. It is usually wise to read through the contents before reading the rest of the content.

  • Glossary is an alphabetical listing of words. In the context of a written work, a glossary contains explanations of words specific to the subject of the work. Glossaries contain words that are central to the work and therefore reading and understanding them can help in understanding the content.

  • About the Author(s) is a section that contains information about the author(s). It can be helpful to know about the authors to understand why they wrote the work. Their life experiences and situation has usually had a great impact on the work. Searching for videos or podcasts on the internet to learn more about the authors and their works explained in their words.

  • Acknowledgements contains the author’s expressions of gratitude to others. These may be people or entities who helped or inspired the creation of the work. Learning about these people help you to grow the network of people researching and writing about interesting topics.

  • Bibliography, references and notes is a list of citations to the published and unpublished sources. Within the body when a citation is used it is marked using specific syntaxes, such as numerical or the name of the author and year. Citation syntax is a stylistic choice. Following the citations can be a way to find related and relevant literature on the same subject as the work.


Metadata provides information about the given written work which makes it important for content management. Electronic literature is distributed in a file and the file may include the metadata related to the work. Metadata includes:

  • Title is the name of the work. It is the most important piece of information for identifying the work. Usually, titles are unique, but not always. Confusion between books with a similar name can be resolved by looking at the authors.

  • Authors describe who created the work. Books often have only one author, but works such as scholarly papers are often written by many authors.

  • File format defines the structure and type of data stored in a file. Most common formats for electronic literature are EPUB, PDF, and HTML. File formats and their differences are explained in the technology section.

  • Cover art is an image on the outside of the work which serves as promotional and aesthetic functions. In literature, usually, books and comics have cover art. Along with the title, the cover is a key piece of identifying information for managing a library of books.

  • Rating is a numeric score, usually from one to five stars, given by the users in order to access the work. Ratings are can be aggregated from sites like Amazon, where they are given by other people.

  • Tags are individual pieces of information, like keywords, that describe the contents of the work. They are relevant for managing electronic libraries.

  • Ids are the identifiers of the work. There exists various different identifiers such as ISSN, ISBN, DOI and site-specific identifiers such ArXiv ID or PMID.

  • Published is the date when the work was published.

  • Publisher is the name of the entity that published the work.

  • Languages is the language in which the work is written.

  • Summary or abstract is a condensed presentation of the contents of the written work.

The Reading Process

After finding interesting books, articles, papers or reading the material, the next challenge will be the reading itself. Both, the motivation to read and understanding the content play important roles in the reading process.


Motivation translates into the time and effort that we are willing to put into reading. Here are some of the ways I keep myself motivated to read more.

  1. Physical Place – For reading, find a place without distractions. The library, cafe or beach in the summer are some good options. Prefer places with natural light and avoid places with artificial lights, they cause unnecessary visual stress. In noisy places use earplugs or noise canceling headphones.

  2. Reading Quota – Having a quota of reading a certain number of pages per day can help to break down the reading goals. For instance, reading fifty pages per day would yield around one book a week.

  3. Create Habits – Making reading a daily habit, by going to your preferred place to read, having coffee, tea or other beverage or stimulant and sitting down to read your daily reading quota. If you reading at the beach you can go swimming every time you finish a certain number of pages. Be creative at creating the reading habits so that they will stick.

  4. Progress List – Keeping a list of what you have read can also be of help. The list can be used to how much progress you have made, its useful for reference and can be used to show others what you have read. Seeing progress can motivate the reading process especially if you share the list with others increasing your sense of accountability.

Understanding Content

In order to ensure that time and effort is not wasted when reading, you should aim to understand the concent. The true efficiency of reading is determined, not just by how much you read, but by how much you understand and learn. The difficulty of fully understanding a written work depends on its content. Books, with only text and simple images, written for the public are often easier to read than a research paper dedicated to a specific area of research containing specialized content such as formulas and equations, charts or source code. Below I note some of the different steps of understanding the content, unlocking its knowledge and getting more value out of reading.

While reading you should:

  1. Highlight Text and Take Notes – Making reading more conscious process by highlighting and taking notes can help to better retain the read information. Highlights and notes can later be used to review the work.

  2. Read Out Loud – Certain types of literature, such as stories and poetry, are best understood when read out loud. This is also a good way to practice speaking and pronunciation of words.

  3. Breaks – Take active breaks. Go for a walk, swimming or do some other low-level physical activity, preferably outside in nature. This can help de-stressing and let the unconscious parts of the brain to do their work.

The review process consists of:

  1. Review the Highlights and Notes – Read the highlights and notes either directly from your device or export them. From the highlights, write down definitions and short difficult pieces of information word for word in order to understand them thoroughly. For longer highlights, compress them into your own words. This can help you retain and understand the information and make it easier to access the book’s knowledge at a later time. Writing things down can be very laborious therefore only focus on key concepts and information.

  2. Re-read – Reading the whole work or parts of it multiple times will improve your understanding of the content. Reading the whole work may be impractical for long books, but shorter texts like articles can easily be read multiple times.

  3. Use the Knowledge – Use the work’s knowledge in your own writings. Teach it to other people. Make connections between this work and other work’s, resources and your own experiences. This is one of the core reasons for reading in the first place.


Common File Formats

In regards to the technology of electronic literature, we need to understand the most common file formats for electronic written content. The differences between the file formats impact the choices of technologies and the process that needs to use. The most common file formats, EPUB, PDF and HTML are explained below.

  • Electronic Publication (EPUB) is a file format for electronic publications with the extension .epub. It is the preferred file format for e-books. EPUB is designed for reading and it has dedicated features for this purpose. Documents in EPUB format are reflowable, which means that the document layout can be adjusted by the user. For example, re-sizable fonts, changeable text, and adjustable margins allow the text to be optimized for a particular display, which makes reading easier. Page bookmarking, and passage highlighting and notes are also supported and they are important for the reading process. EPUB format also has the ability to store metadata which enables libraries that can store books and be searched. This is useful for managing electronic publications.

  • Portable Document Format (PDF) is a file format with the extension .pdf It is used to represent documents in fixed-layout independent of the platform. Fixed-layout means that each file encapsulates the complete description of the document, including the text, fonts, graphics and other information. For this reason, the displayed layout of the document cannot be (easily) adjusted by the user compared to EPUBs. PDFs are a popular format for academic publishing which often require special formatting such as equations.

  • Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) are the languages responsible for the text, links and presentation of a web page. JavaScript (JS) provides web content its interactivity, but we will ignore and focus static (non-interactive) content. The files are usually served by the server and displayed by the browser without the user having to interact with the actual raw files.

Common Content Types

Different electronic content types use different file formats. The format affects the process of managing and reading the particular type of content. Common content types including electronic books, academic publications, online articles and software documentation are explained below.

  • Electronic books (e-books) are usually distributed in EPUB format, but books with content such as equation that require specialized formatting are often distributed in PDF format. Compared to traditional books, e-books are portable, easy to reference and highlight, allow searching them using keywords and are easier to organize and manage. Dedicated e-readers make reading e-books more convenient and easier than traditional books.

  • Academic publications such as scholarly papers published in academic journals are a commonly read in the academic world. They most often come in PDF format due to special formatting requirements.

  • Online articles are found in blogs, online newspapers and magazines, Wikipedia and other online publications. They are served through the website in HTML format. Because online articles come from various websites with different layouts, potential popups, advertisement, and other distractions it is suggested to use an aggregator to aggregate the content and display it in a simplified format. This makes reading online articles easier, reducing potential distractions, allowing pagination and increasing efficiency. Also, online media is often recurrent in nature. New blog posts, news articles or magazine articles are usually created on daily, weekly or monthly schedule.

  • Software documentation is a class of documents that describe how a particular software operates and the roles of the people involved in its development. Types of documents include requirements, architecture/design, technical, end user and marketing documents. Software documentation is part of the software engineering discipline. The documents themselves are usually in HTML and PDF format, and sometimes also in EPUB format.

Devices and Hardware

The best choice of hardware depends on the activity in the reading process and on the content type. The choice for reading a book with lots of text and few pictures is different from reading web article with interactive content. Similarly, the choice for managing content is different from reading it. The hardware choices considered in this article are desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones and e-readers. The most viable choice from given hardware should be determined by their properties. Here is a list of key properties and how they affect reading and managing electronic content:

  • Dimensions – The physical size and weight determine the portability of the device. Smaller, thinner and lighter devices are easier to carry than larger, heavier devices. Smaller ones, like smartphones, fit into a pocket but larger ones, like tablets, e-readers, and laptops, require to be carried in hand, backpack or briefcase. Desktops obviously aren’t portable.

  • Screen Type – There are many types of screens; LCD, OLED, and AMOLED are common among computer, tablet and smartphone screens. E-readers have their own type of screen, the E-ink screen. E-ink screens have a more paper-like look, they are eye-friendly and facilitate longer battery life compared to other devices (days vs hours). However, the tradeoff is slower refresh rate which makes E-ink screen more tedious for interactive tasks, such as highlighting or taking notes, than other screen types.

  • Screen Size – The size of the screen effects how easy it is to read from the device and how much information is displayed at given moment. The optimal screen size for reading is the one that displays just enough information and is easy to read from. Displaying excessive information or other information that the actual content can be distractive and drain mental energy. Usually, screen sizes from smallest to largest are a smartphone, e-reader, tablet, laptop, and desktop.

  • Features – Available features and software depend on the device and its operating system, and have a direct effect on usability. Different devices require different software for reading and managing the various types of content. Differences between devices should be considered when choosing a device. For example, interacting with a device requires either the input or output of information. Usually, more powerful devices, like computers, are faster at handling inputs, which makes them more suited for input dependent tasks such as managing content. On the other hand output dependent tasks, such as reading, if done for a longer period of time benefit from using less powerful, more domain-specific devices, like e-readers, because the reduced input speed makes them less distracting.

  • Price – The price is determining factor when choosing hardware. Consider investing in the most useful and versatile hardware first, for example, a (hybrid) laptop.

In order to choose the right hardware, find reviews comparing different hardware and their properties. Video reviews or websites that compare different hardware are a good place to start.