There’s an app for this

How to follow the world of ideas on the go

By Joanne McNeil
January 10, 2010

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You probably know an iPhone owner or two who just can’t wait to demonstrate their virtual Zippo lighter or I Am T-Pain, the auto-tune recorder. A cursory look at the app store only supports iPhone’s reputation as the flippant teenager of smartphones, with The Moron Test and Pocket Girlfriend (whatever that is) listed among the worldwide top-sellers.

But a fairer assessment is that the iPhone is a device for the polymath. Virtually any fascination is enriched with an app. Marathon racing? Try RunKeeper, which tracks your distance and time using GPS. An art lover? Yours, Vincent from the Van Gogh Museum, with its galleries and archival letters, can’t be missed. Stargazing is never the same once you’ve got Pocket Universe, an augmented reality app that points out the constellations overhead as if there were no fog or clouds obstructing your view. Even some of the sillier seeming apps, like Flashlight, really come in handy while looking for a seat in a movie theater.

And if you want to tap into the world of ideas? Well, yes, there are apps for that, too. So, for the iPhone owners out there, here are a few suggestions for keeping up with the conversation:

Instapaper (Free). Ever come across something you would really like to read, but don’t have the time? Instapaper provides an easy way to save articles to read at a more convenient moment. After creating an account, you download a button for your browser. Any time you click the bookmarklet, Instapaper saves the text on a website in a readable format, stripped of ads and images. It is easy to download your saved articles to your iPhone and read them on the train ride home, or whenever you have a few minutes. Instapaper is widely used - and loved. Wired’s Dylan F. Tweney once wrote on the Gadget Lab blog that Instapaper “just about justifies the phone’s purchase price all by itself.” Also be sure to have a look at Instapaper’s most frequently bookmarked articles at Give Me Something to Read ( It is an eclectic list of magazine articles and short fiction from publications like The Atlantic, Seed magazine, and The New Republic.

Newsstand ($4.99). With an aggregator like Newsstand, you “subscribe” to your favorite publications so you can read them all in one place. Simply type in the names of websites that you like to read and it will alert you to fresh content. Newsstand has a mock newspaper interface for reading headlines and articles. Many newspapers and blogs even display their full articles in this format, known as “RSS,” so you can read everything in the app without waiting for Safari to load. Newsstand is best for casual use; with more than about a dozen subscriptions, the app may feel overwhelming. And use care when subscribing to large publications, like BBC News, or you will be flooded. Instead of a publication’s main feed, you might want to subscribe to specific sections like “Science & Environment,” which, in the case of the BBC, averages about 50 updates in a week.

Stanza (Free). The Kindle may have a longer battery life and E Ink, but the iPhone has an even greater advantage as an eReader - it’s almost always with you. While the small screen may not be ergonomically ideal, the iPhone’s portability means that at a moment’s notice you can download and start reading any digital book available online. The iPhone touchscreen makes reading a seamless experience. And if you choose a public domain literary classic, it won’t cost you anything.

Of the several free eReader apps, Stanza is the finest. It is the easiest to customize, offering dozens of options to change fonts, size, brightness, and color for the most ideal reading interface. Tapping on any word prompts a dictionary definition, and you can even annotate with notepad hyperlinks from the text. Quick access to the Project Gutenberg catalog of public domain literary classics by Edgar Allen Poe, H. G. Wells, and Lewis Carroll gives Stanza an edge over Barnes & Noble’s eReader and the Kindle for iPhone. Even purchasing a book is less complicated on Stanza, which provides fast access to several sources other than Stanza’s parent company, Amazon.

NPR (Free). In July of last year, National Public Radio released all its material online so that anyone with enough technical savvy could build applications using the network’s vast archives and streaming audio. Shortly after, a formidable unofficial NPR app emerged called NPR Addict. The official NPR app quietly debuted last summer. Have you made the switch? You should. The official app is remarkably robust, with a sleek interface for searching by show, topic, or station. You can listen to recent episodes of programs like “On the Media” or “Science Friday” or play live streaming radio from any member station. Still can’t get enough public radio? Check out CBC Radio (Free), a similarly designed app for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

McSweeney’s: The Small Chair ($5.99). In addition to being an independent publishing house, McSweeney’s is the parent company of an arts and culture magazine (The Believer), a DVD quarterly (Wholphin), and a literary journal (Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern). So the press, founded by author Dave Eggers, has plenty of material to mine for its app. The iPhone app is divided into two sections. The first includes daily humor pieces from McSweeney’s website, (sample headlines: “Catherine and Heathcliff Audition for Twilight” and “Has Bell Invented a ‘Telegraph Killer’?”). The second section offers content exclusive to iPhone subscribers. Each week brings a new short film, interview, or fiction work. Contributors include Jonathan Ames, Spike Jonze, and Maurice Sendak.

Another app for new short fiction is Electric Literature ($4.99), a fully digital quarterly literary magazine. ElectricLit’s two anthologies feature critically acclaimed authors like Michael Cunningham, Colson Whitehead, and Lydia Davis. There’s also ScrollMotion’s First Things Last (Free), the “interactive serial,” a uniquely visual reading experience, which plays like a touchscreen-directed silent movie.

TED (Free). The TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference is an annual four-day invitation-only event consisting of 80 speeches - no panels , just an individual on stage. Just about every boldface brain has given a talk at TED. Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, Daniel Dennett, Bill Clinton, Oliver Sacks, Raymond Kurzweil, J.J. Abrams, Amy Tan, Philippe Starck, and Frank Gehry are among the hundreds whose presentations are freely available for streaming on the conference website. Since these talks are minimal on visuals, they are no less compelling on the iPhone’s small screen. Most of these talks, in fact, are just as enjoyable as audio-only podcasts, also available with TED’s app.

IndieBound (Free). Next time you are on vacation and craving a quirky beach read, check out this great app from the independent bookseller alliance IndieBound. It uses GPS to find the nonchain bookstores nearest to you, complete with a contact number, hours of operation, and link to its website. You can use IndieBound to order books to pick up at the indie bookshop of your choice and keep a “wish list” of books you’d like to read next. It is also excellent for browsing, when no brick-and-mortar shop is nearby. Check out the bestseller lists and reading group recommendations in categories ranging from “Comics and Graphic Novels” to “Memorable Women.” Now, isn’t that better than I Am T-Pain?

Joanne McNeil lives on the South Shore and blogs at The Tomorrow Museum,