Monday, August 23, 2010

Everything you've ever read is wrong.

If you read a book published before 2010, then you'd best forget about it. That book was written for someone less enlightened than you, with your social networking and facebooking and tweeting.

In case you haven't heard, reading has changed. It is no longer the solitary pursuit once prized by eggheads. Readers used to sit quietly with their books, read the words, then have deep thoughts about them. The words were fixed on the page allowing for our thoughts to coalesce around them. The words became part of us as we found ourselves experiencing the same emotions and ideas that the author intended for us to share. And these emotions and ideas could span generations and give us a link back through time as we formed empathetic bonds through those printed words.

But reading has evolved. We no longer read for ourselves, but for others. We read to share. We highlight words in our ereaders and share those words with others. We tweet our favorite passages to others so they can witness our intellectual transformations. I read to better myself through your eyes, not my own. I don't exist without your retweets.

So these are the ebook and ereader questions: is the act of reading changing because the medium has changed? Do people still read for the same reasons that they did when the medium was paper? Is reading evolving into a social activity?

You could argue that it's always been a social activity: books communicate between the author and the reader; plays communicate to the audience; picture books are read aloud to children; book clubs discuss the work among the group; poetry communicates to, um, no one since 1967, and on and on.

But the act of reading has always been a solitary act. I seek a quiet place to read free from distractions, then I open the book and read. I am alone with the words.

But what about ebooks? These are designed for devices that perform a multitude of other tasks. They allow for annotating, highlighting, saving, possibly forwarding to other devices. The device makes for easy sharing.

So if ereaders change the way we read by giving us all these methods for sharing what we read and how we think about what we read, then will the books change? Will books become more social?

Are there books with spots at the end of the chapter that say, "Twitter break" or "tweet this!" What about embedded tweet functionality? As soon as you highlight something, tiny box opens to ask "What do you want to do with this? T(witter)? F(acebook)? A(mazon) B(uzz) L(ibraryThing)?"

What about the length of the chapters? Are they written shorter to be read during those few minutes when we can devote attention to the book? Like are new books written with 2 page chapters?

Seriously, is the act of reading changing? I mean, there really is book called How to Read a Book. It was published in 1940. It is outdated? One of the most important rules for reading is to read actively, to analyze what you are reading, its purpose and the author's goals in writing it. Is this rule obsolete today with so much hogging our attention?

Does this new medium negate serious reading (see the Annoyed Librarian for her definition of a serious reader)? You can spin molecules on you iPad screen and you can hold your screen up to the world and have your iPad tell you more about your place in it. So no, the technology doesn't destroy the reading experience, but it provides enough distractions that the serious reader can't be blamed for succumbing to its many charms.

Reading shouldn't be the same as simply looking at words. It should also be more than just knowing the difference between dog and frog. But, again, is the act of reading changing?

Anyway, if there is any point to this, it's that the solitary act of reading is dead and interactive technology done it.

And then, when serious reading is dead, would it be wrong to read Walden on your ereader?
For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old. To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.
[project gutenberg]
Will anyone ever read Walden on an iPad? Will the iPad explode from the irony? Check your warranty and tos; it's probably in there somewhere.