I recently returned from San Francisco and the fabulous Books in Browsers 2011 conference therein. I tried hard to keep live tweeting from the event (via the @ifbookaus account), but alas I'm no @ebookish (forever now known as The Thumbs of Fury). I was reduced to desperately taking notes and occasionally copy-and-pasting in the Twitter app.
The event itself is organised by the awesome Peter Brantley and hosted at the Internet Archive. Books in Browsers is a small event attended by some of the finest people at the techie end of publishing (and me). Because of its size and the quality of its attendees, there was no need to waste time arseing around discussions of paper versus screen or on the relative merits of digital workflows. It was like a welcome homecoming.
The first day hit the ground running with an overview of the changes to the epub 3 standard. Oh yeah, not for the faint-hearted. The first day's discussion though revolved mostly around the concept of social reading, in other words the idea that you can share your thoughts, comments and other annotations on the text you're reading with others. The magic of digital means that you can read a text with others regardless of distance or time. Such annotations can build over time to form a complex metatext that not only supports but also may shed new light on the original work.
At a big-picture-macro-level, I get social reading and I understand why it's important to get right and why so many people are making it the centre of what they do. Books have always been social. The web has always been social, even before social media. Books don't exist in a vacuum, they are shared and discussed and pored over and quoted from. Well a lot of them are. What social media has done is take our naturally gregarious instinct to a global scale. For good or ill, we're just playing out our regular lives on a grander scale. Social reading merely brings the same grandness to the experience of reading. Bob Stein probably put it most succinctly:
The internet was specifically created to enable people to work and play with other people. Social reading is not an add on; it's a foundation in the new media ecology.
So I get it.
But, as a writer, I have misgivings. Junking up texts with asides is not my idea of a welcome change. Any social reading platform worth its salt includes the ability to switch off the chatter, but there's something unsettling about the chatter's presence, lurking under the surface of the text, just waiting for the right moment to drown it out. What will readers value more: the text itself or the banter from the peanut gallery? Depends on the reader. Depends on the text. And, naturally, I have a vested interest in maintaining the clarity of the authorial voice. How could I not?
Worse, as a reader, I find the whole concept of social reading slightly nauseating. I love long-form narrative. I read a lot of it. And I don't tweet about it or blog about it. This is something I've only just realised. I don't talk about the content of the books I read all that often (especially fiction). I talk about books in general, of course. That's my job. But I don't talk about the stories or the characters or anything else much about what I read. I don't annotate my books and I feel no desire to do so. What I think and what I feel as I'm reading is the experience of reading and whatever I recall of that later on is worthy enough.
When I read, when I read deep immersive texts, I'm gone. I'm wherever the story has taken me. Interrupt me when this happens (either electronically or IRL) and I'll start getting crabby at you. This is my story. Go get your own.
Now, I might be an abnormal reader. I probably am, actually. And I'm aware that I sound like a curmudgeonly old git. But I suspect there's an important point buried in the mild vitriol. We read different kinds of texts in different ways and not all books are a form of escapism.
Case in point is my own Off the Record. Two of the most common responses Sean and I have had to this book are as follows:
- "I'd forgotten about how much I love this or that band"
- "I just want to listen to the music I'm reading about"
If you haven't read it (why haven't you read it? go and buy it now, then come back...I'll wait), Off the Record is packed with short articles, equal parts nostalgia, rock and roll, and time capsule. It's writing begging to be discussed, annotated, and augmented.
Simply put, it's not long-form narrative.
All of which is my long-winded acknowledgement that although social reading will undoubtedly become an essential feature of stories and other texts in coming years, remember that not all reads are the same. Don't treat them as such.
People talking about books is one thing, but I think perhaps the most exciting find of Books in Browsers 2011 is what happens when books start talking to each other.
I'll cover that in the next post.