Oldish TTBOOK show on the future of reading

Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge is almost always compelling. I used to listen to it on Sundays in San Francisco. Here in exile, I have it in my podcast mix alongside a good few other NPR/PRI shows. This edition, How to Read a Book (only a year old.. but I got to it when I got to it) offered a few items which turned out to be a good match for this blog.

The first interview is with Jason Merkoski, author of Burning the Page: The Ebook Revolution and the Future of Reading.

Merkowski was in at the beginning of the Kindle, by no means the first e-reader, but arguably a catalyst for the current revolution. He speaks of e-books ushering a ‘minor Renaissance’ in reading, but also worries that books might be cheapened now that words are just media like any other kind of digital content.

Despite his love for traditional books, for their heft, even their smell, he maintains that the benefits of digital books outweigh the risks.

At the heart of these benefits, he suggests, is a step shift in reading which is under way if not already with us. This is reading 2.0. For the past few hundred years reading has been stable. In the West, a left to right, front to back affair.

Among the features of reading 2.0 he mentions are.

  • Non-linearity – the ability to search for for the content you want.
  • Analytics inside books. Who reads, who recommends, what is read.
  • Shared and social aspects.

In the interview, at least, I’m not sure he gets to the guts of how this might change reading. We have always lent books and shared opinions (and in fact, DRM and questions of ownership might arguably have a deadening rather than a leavening effect). We have always dipped in, and read at random, or from back to front. I’d also be interested to know who the increased availability of reading analytics is likely to ultimately benefit.

Merkowski speaks of a Facebook for books in which the existing subtle or explicit references between volumes are made real and navigable. This will allow readers to hop contextually from one book to another, based on subject matter, comments, etc.

This vision of an intertextual future reminds me of the library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose:

Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.

David Mikics talks about his book, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. This is a polemic against the tyranny of choice and our ever-shortening attention spans. He warns against “shallow blotching blundering infectious information”. One cannot help but remember the Facebook of books at this point.

He advocates patience, persistence, and rereading. “Rise up,” he says, “you have nothing to lose but your electronic chains.” Reject the “shallow promises of digital technology”.

“Getting lost in a book may the surest way to find what we need.”

There is a bit of pleasant nonsense from Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin about their book Novel Cures.

Doug Dorst discusses S — his novel, inspired by an idea from JJ Abrams, which is made up of a core story and marginal notes. This kind of game is far from new, of course. Nabokov’s Pale Fire springs to mind. It is interesting nonetheless, especially when one considers the way that annotations may evolve around digital books in the future. It is possible to imagine some texts that might become lost beneath far more interesting stories and debates.

Tom Standage talks about his book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years. He describes the way that Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses spread organically with short print runs driven by reader demand from town to town, until its reach covered Germany in two weeks and the whole of Western Europe in a month. Effectively, he says, Luther ‘went viral’. The rate of spread of his work itself indicated to Luther the viability of his own ideas.

Standage argues that top down mass media structures are only really a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to technological advances in the Nineteenth Century, limited print runs meant that ideas were spread on a networked basis.

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