Thursday 24 December 2009

The Future of Reading

Last week I took part in a television discussion on the future of reading, on a program called The Agenda (on TVO, arranged by Wodek Szemberg and hosted by Steve Paikin; you can watch the program, broadcast on 16 December, by clicking here). The other people in the discussion were Bob Young (who runs the Institute for the Future of the Book, click here), Bill Buxton (Chief Researcher at Microsoft), Mark Federman (a researcher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), and Cynthia Good (former Publisher and Editor-in-Chief at Penguin Canada, now Director of the Creative Book Publishing Program at Humber College, in Toronto).

The discussion was on whether the computer and the internet were changing the way we read, and whether they have already put in place the elements of a revolution that will be as significant for reading as the introduction of printed books by Johannes Gutenberg 555 years ago.

Perhaps the most obvious change in the last couple of years has been that the Sony Reader, the Amazon Kindle, and the Apple i-Phone, have appeared, which connect to the internet, and which enable one to choose, download, and read books, all by means of one portable device. The new technological niche opened up here is that of replacing the hardback and the paperback (the printed codex) with electronic print on a small computer interface. The opportunity that this brings is to hold thousands of books in a piece of hardware the size of one book (or less). It will make for less weight in your luggage when you travel, save shelf-space in your house, require fewer trees to be chopped down, and save you trips to the bookshop. The worry is that it will cause these bookshops to close, and that it will mark the end of traditional publishing. In all this, however, the book and the act of reading stay much the same. The new electronic reading devices are designed to emulate the print-on-paper book. They already do a pretty good job, and no doubt they will get better.

The next phase of the revolution is only just beginning. It will be to make both writing and reading more interactive: writing-and-reading. For instance every blog, including OnFiction, is a publisher, and offers the opportunity not only for more people to write and promulgate what they write, but for people to engage with the writers in discussion, a mode that we at OnFiction, of course, encourage in comments sections at the end of each post. This mode of interactivity has much further to go. Spontaneity in writing is likely to become more highly valued. There are already on-line games in which players jointly produce fictional worlds and fictional interactions. Authors can make use of feedback from readers, readers can engage with each other … the new modes of interactivity for fiction and non-fiction will be fascinating to witness.

Will the book as we know it become extinct? In the TVO discussion, Cynthia Good and I found ourselves on the side of dinosaurs in relation to the other three panel members, the techno-chappies, who pronounced the paper book already obsolete.

The coming into existence of the paper-and-print book has many accomplishments, two of which, it seems to me, were scarcely foreseeable in 1455. They are entirely remarkable. One was to enable the emergence and wide appreciation of novels and short-stories: forms in which authors spend months and years on a work, thinking, drafting and re-drafting, so that they can reach all the way down into the subjects they treat. The other has been the possibilities for readers to enter into relationships—quite intimate relationships—with books, with authors, with fictional characters. in his essay Sur la lecture (On reading) Marcel Proust put it like this.
In reading, friendship is restored immediately to its original purity. With books there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with those friends—books—it's because we really want to. When we leave them, we do so with regret and, when we have left them, there are none of those thoughts that spoil friendship: "What did they think of us?"—"Did we make a mistake and say something tactless?"—"Did they like us?"—nor is there the anxiety of being forgotten because of displacement by someone else. All such agitating thoughts expire as we enter the pure and calm friendship of reading (p. 40, my translation).
Marcel Proust (1905). Sur la lecture. Mozambook (current edition 2001).

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