Do We Really Want Books to Be “Social”?


Readmill (Photo credit: Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta)

Well! We read this morning in a post tweeted by Joe Esposito that “E-Books Could Be The Future Of Social Media.” In that post, technology journalist Michael Grothaus, after a paragraph or two declaring his ostensibly neo-Luddite preference for print books over electronic, spends his remaining on-screen inches in fulsome praise of Readmill, a “small but growing app . . . that seems to have its pulse on the future of reading.” Readmill, explains Henrik Berggren, the app’s CEO (and I was not aware until now that apps had CEOs), aims to turn e-books into “niche social networks” brimming with real-time interactions among readers — and, of course, piping all of the data on those interactions back to authors and publishers to help them “make more informed decisions.”

I’ll let you read the post for yourself; suffice to say, a number of things in it struck me as unintentionally funny. Start with the big banner image at the top: It shows a line of five people, sitting on a couch in an old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar bookstore, each immersed in a print book. There is not an e-book in sight. All of them look thoroughly absorbed in what they’re doing, and while none of them is smiling, a sense of vast contentment radiates from the photo.

Note that although this is, at least in the broadest sense, a group of people, they are engaged in a fundamentally solitary activity. And nothing is “broken” here — the print format’s support of sustained concentration, its momentary banishment of distraction, is a feature, not a bug.

It seems to me that this is likely to be true irrespective of the platform. In a moment of pure hubris, Berggren, in his interview with Grothaus, asserts that e-reader platforms like Amazon’s Kindle are “doing it in the wrong way,” kind of a remarkable statement given that Amazon owns 45% of the e-book market and the Kindle is what got them there. While there are many reasons for that success, I think you could make an argument that part of it of lies simply in the characteristics of the device itself, which (except perhaps in the case of the Kindle Fire) seems designed to be as book-like and distraction-free as possible. That, at least, is a big reason it’s worked for me. With my Kindle Paperwhite, I don’t just skim, I read.

There are larger social issues here than Amazon’s bottom line or the promise of apps like Readmill, when we think about what the rise of screen media has already done to our ability to engage with books as intellectual objects. Cory Doctorow memorably referred to the Internet as “an ecosystem of distraction technologies”; what happens when we start to embed them into activities, like reading, for which a lack of distraction is an essential part of the experience? We already have some idea, given the differing ways we interact with HTML pages versus PDFs versus print material. And an interesting survey earlier this year, focusing on the reading habits of children in the U.K. found that, yes, more children are now reading on electronic devices than in print, and they prefer it that way — but that “those who read only on screen are . . . three times less likely to enjoy reading (12% compared to 51%)” than those who read in print.

Certainly the world is changing, but it does seem worth thinking about these data and their implications for what the thing that we call “reading” actually is, and is becoming.

Also unintentionally funny in Grothaus’s article is his bout of hand-wringing over the implications of Readmill’s proposed business model. That model, like so many we are seeing these days, seems to revolve around selling data on user interactions back to interested parties — in this case, book publishers. Grothaus is worried: Won’t this mean that publishers will start to use these data to lean on authors and dictate their writing styles to boost sales? Berggren offers this glib response: “You can paint a very dystopian future where publishers say, ‘Oh, people are just skipping this chapter. You can’t write like this anymore.’ However, I think that’s unlikely to happen.”

Well, that’s a relief.

(Nota bene: Berggren’s response, in addition to being a dodge, shows how successfully we’ve managed to cheapen the term “dystopian.” You want dystopias, Henrik? I’ll show you some dystopias.)

2 thoughts on “Do We Really Want Books to Be “Social”?

  1. Chris Hughes

    Hello Stewart

    The enjoyment of literature only became a private and solitary pursuit quite recently. From the Greek rhapsodes to Norse sagas, stories were designed to be told to many people at once. Later, the first written works were far too valuable to be read by only one person at a time. St Ambrose is credited with the invention of silent reading: “When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.” (Augustine in Book 6, chapter 3 of his Confessions)

    The rise of cheap printed books allowed people to own books of their own, small enough to carry around in read in contemplative silence: the Sony Walkman period in the history of literature. But that was in the fifteenth century. Now, we seem to have a pressing need to share everything, and our governments have a pressing need to listen in. Private reading may only have been a blip.

    1. Stewart Post author

      Hi, Chris — great to hear from you! It has been quite a while; hope things are well. And a terrific comment — though I’m not sure I’d characterize 600 years as a blip . . .

      And, of course, the very the success of the book format itself changed not just how we engage with literature, but literature itself; we are no longer writing in the hexameters or alliterative verse of oral traditions — designed, among other things, to facilitate memorization — and it’s hard to imagine going back. That evolution certainly was partly driven by the technology of mass book production, as you suggest, and it is indeed anybody’s guess as to where the current technical ferment will ultimately take the literature of the future. I just hope that it doesn’t take away my own ability to curl up, undistracted, with a good book and a well-mixed Manhattan. We shall see . . .

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