Steven Berlin Johnson’s recent Wall Street Journal article on how the e-book will change reading practices had me racing to my blog before I’d even finished it. Building from a moment of recognition (an “aha moment”) in an Austin coffeehouse, in which he “put down” the nonfiction book he was reading on his Kindle to purchase and start reading a novel. Within minutes, Johnson had started reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, “shelving” the other book.
As my use of scare-quotes illustrates, the Kindle may very well change the metaphors we use to describe shifting our attention from one text to another. If I switch books on a Kindle, am I really “putting something down?” More to the point, Johnson interprets this moment as a model for the new ways of reading that may be on the verge of taking place in the era of Google Books and the Amazon Kindle, and I think–at least on an impressionistic level–Johnson’s argument has a number of strengths (note: I still haven’t had an opportunity to test-drive a Kindle or iPhone). He’s certainly right to observe that the ability to search our libraries will affect how we do research. I’ve already found myself using a quick Google Book or Google Scholar search to track down certain concepts. More often, I’ve used delicious or some other tool to manage ideas or articles that I want to revisit, but having access to books as well, via search tools or some other mechanism, would change even further how I write and research.
But the claim that sent me scurrying to read Johnson’s article, which I can’t recommend enough, is the idea that reading will be transformed from a fundamentally private activity to a more public one:
Think of it as a permanent, global book club. As you read, you will know that at any given moment, a conversation is available about the paragraph or even sentence you are reading. Nobody will read alone anymore. Reading books will go from being a fundamentally private activity — a direct exchange between author and reader — to a community event, with every isolated paragraph the launching pad for a conversation with strangers around the world.
Johnson compares the act of reading on a Kindle to the “public” practices of blogging, where bloggers read, annotate, and mull over the writing of others. There’s something incredibly enticing here, at least for me. While Johnson speculates that our attention to any single linear narrative might wane (a debatable claim), the engaged audience he imagines here would seem ideal for scholarly readers and writers. And as the book itself is reimagined as an object to be cited and circulated online, it potentially creates room for new forms of scholarship and writing.
But I do find myself puzzling over his claim that reading currently is a “fundamentally private activity.” In fact, reading as I have experienced it, has always been a complex interweaving of public and private tendencies, never fully reaching either extreme. In my literature classes, my students and I read passages aloud in the classroom. Once we’ve read a couple of stories or poems, the classroom reading practices inform how my students prepare. Discussions with scholars at academic conferences shape my own reading habits. Book clubs, virtual and physical, mix up the public/private distinction as well. Yes, the novel has typically been associated with solitude, but even when we read alone, we do so through the lenses of others. And, given that I could now “find” books from my laptop, the physical–presumably semi-public–activity of going to the library seemingly becomes less necessary.
Johnson also sees changes in how books are authored, organized, indexed, and sold. I think he’s right that some books may be sold on a per chapter basis (maybe along the lines of an iTunes model) and that authors may write with search engines in mind (and Alex Halavais’s cautions about the emerging “search engine society” are crucial here), that citations will serve as a form of currency. These issues are certainly central to some of the conversations that have been taking place in the last couple of years at scholarly resources such as MediaCommons (where I’m an advisory board member), so Johnson’s comments are useful.
In general, Johnson’s article puts together some useful questions about the future of the book. It’s not difficult for me to imagine that my second book will be significantly different stucturally than my first one, in part thanks to these new digital tools.