I’m trying out a new app called Oyster. It’s iPhone specific for the moment. Think of it as Netflix streaming, except for books. I’m paying $10 out of pocket per month for the service, the standard rate.

The reader

Everything about the reader seems aimed at a smooth reading experience. Pages scroll upwards, like Reader view in Mobile Safari except that it’s divided into little phone-sized pages, not a continuous scroller. Turning the page is an easy upward flick of the thumb. There are no overall page numbers–at the level of an entire book there’s no real indicator of how long it is. Your reading position is tracked as a percentage. Within a chapter, it does tell you how many teensy phone-sized pages are left to the end of the chapter, a small feature I find a close match with how I read paper (I tend to peek ahead to keep track of how close I am to the next major boundary). It also estimates time to end of the chapter, but for my reading rate I found the estimates to be almost exactly 3x too big. Each page is about 100 words with an estimated reading rate of 5 pages every 3 minutes. So apparently the app is calibrated at a reading rate of 166 wpm, and I read somewhere around 500 wpm.

The iPhone screen resolution is sharp, and the fonts the developers have chosen are easy on the eyes. I never had to change the defaults.

The app can render a table of contents, a “read privately” switch, and a mark completed feature. There is no search-within-the-book. You can highlight and even copy to clipboard passages within a teensy page. There is also a dictionary lookup feature.


It’s quite useful to have things to read on your phone. When you’re stuck in line at the grocery store, or at a doctor’s office, or driving (kidding!) you probably have a phone on you but not necessarily a mid-size or full-size tablet device.

I’ve read two books and am currently working on a third. First I read City of Truth by James Morrow. It was an easy, pleasurable experience, not to mention a fantastic story. The hardware/software didn’t get in the way at all. A great deal of this story I read on a train, and it was well suited for this environment.

Next I read The Goldilocks Enigma, a science book by Paul Davies. Here some of the limitations of the format began to show. The book has many diagrams, some of which were on the small size. When the text references or cross-references a diagram there is a small angle bracket you can follow to jump there, but in several instances this affordance was missing. The book also had extensive endnotes, which worked like little numbered hyperlinks, but due to a bug (which might be fixed by now) sometimes the return link would get confused and take you back to the start of the chapter, losing your place–and it may a hundred page swipes to get back. This only happened occasionally.

If you like to read the first bits of a book in order to see if you’d like it, this is also a good platform. There were several books which I will not call out by name that looked interesting or that I’ve heard about, but by about 6% of the way in I decided wasn’t for me. If you do this often, you’ll find this service useful.

Currently I am reading The Best American Short Stories 2012, a format for which this is just about perfect.


During the sign-up process you pick five books, and I had no problem finding five things that interested me. They advertise “Over 100,000 books” but that’s little consolation if they don’t have what you’re looking for. How does someone writing an in-depth review categorize this? 100k titles could be either fantastic or terrible, it depends. So let me mention a few searches I did, and see what comes up. Aside: the in-app search doesn’t have any autocomplete to help guide you. I presume this standard search feature is coming soon.

[Count of Monte Cristo] -> Returns a all-in-one title as well as separate parts 1-4, as well as another book of that title by Monica Corwin plus other stuff from Alexandre Dumas

[Neal Stephenson] -> Cryptonomicon, plus two of the three books in the Baroque Cycle. Not present: Snow Crash or Anathem, the two things I was looking to re-read.

[Pynchon] -> Nothing from Thomas. Interestingly, one of the three results was Ubik by Philip K. Dick.

[Neuromancer] -> Not the title itself. The one result was a William Gibson biography.

[Libriomancer] -> Heard wonderful things about this new title from Jim C. Hines, but no results in Oyster.

The Netflix streaming comparison is probably apt in terms of selection as well. Behind the scenes, I’m sure lots of negotiating with rightsholders is going on, and the list of available titles changes frequently.

Oyster vs. library?

In discussing this with friends, the inevitable question comes up: why pay for this when you can go to the library for free*? A few reasons: the grocery-line thing may be significant depending on how busy your life is. If you tend to sample lots of books but always find yourself on the go, it’s useful. In my neck of the woods, we’re talking about the Northern California Digital Library, which also doesn’t have the latest from Thomas Pynchon or Jim C. Hines, nor any available ebook edition of Anathem. When they do have titles available electronically, it can be in awkward formats (did somebody way protected Adobe PDF?) and/or with outrageous wait times. I’m not opposed to reading print books, far from it, but even there, the current hold list for popular titles like the Pynchon book is multiple weeks. And I don’t treasure lugging huge hardcovers on the train.

I’m an omnivorous reader. I also usually get my one-book-a-month from Amazon Prime, but that’s annoyingly restricted to actual Kindle hardware, and I don’t have my Kindle near me 24×7. I regularly come back from the library with more books that are strictly advisable. And now I read more on my phone. If a month goes by and I haven’t used the service at all, then I’ll probably cancel.

I have one remaining invitation to Oyster (at full price, natch). If you’re interested, let me know.

*taxes not included