Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, September 23, 2010

more futures for the book

Please watch this video about the future of the book. (I could embed it, but it would be too small.) Did you see it? Okay, then, some thoughts:

1) Nelson is for people who don't know what they think about something until they know what other people think. Note that there’s no reading involved, but rather assessments of value, made by others.

2) There’s no reading involved in Coupland either, just an effort at bringing social cohesion to the college or workplace. Not much room in this model for the person with eccentric or even minority tastes.

3) Alice involves reading, but constantly interactive reading: hands reshape the page, characters from the book send texts to your phone, and so on.

Long-form reading, with its demands of extensive and intensive concentration, single-minded attention, is not the only kind of reading. Nor is it the only valuable kind of reading. But it rarely gets mentioned in these conversations about “the future of the book.” Is this a tacit admission that new technologies of the book have nothing to contribute to long-form reading, to focused attentiveness? Does the paper codex own that territory, without rival? I’d like to see at least someone thinking imaginatively about the contributions digital technologies can make to single-mindedness.

12 comments:

  • "Nelson," "Coupland," and "Alice"? Is naming them like this supposed to remind me of Ikea storage systems, or is it just me?

  • Mostly what I noticed is that whoever made this video, they have no understanding of the value of professional voice talent to make a pitch seem... professional.

    The second thing is something a sound guy said to me about 12 years ago, "Film is logarithmic" by which he meant it takes 10 times more money to create twice the production effect; as demonstrated by the weak vocal talent in this video.

    If this is the 'future of books' we'd better hope Clay Shirky is right. Because without unleashing torrents of cognitive capital, our information landscape is going to be populated mostly by underproduced projects, and the audience is only going to be drawn that much more to the few productions that can meet expectation.

    Oh wait, that's already what's happened.

  • I would argue that the most significant contemporary contribution to long-form reading is the Kindle. The Kindle makes it easier to immerse oneself in the book, by being lighter and having bigger characters. Scrolling makes it harder to flip through, which has its downsides -- but makes it easier to stay long-form-focused.

  • As you know, PEG, I'm in agreement about the Kindle -- but that does't seem to represent the general direction of R&D in these matters. But maybe the Kindle will prove to be more resilient than a lot of people think.

  • Vince Virgilio said...

    Natural cork, synthetic cork, and screw tops. As long as the wine is kept well, I don't care how it's capped. The rest is snobbery (though can be a pleasant diversion).

    I'd lose interest immediately if the vinters sold chemistry sets ("because they could") instead of finished vino.

  • "Natural cork, synthetic cork, and screw tops. As long as the wine is kept well, I don't care how it's capped. The rest is snobbery (though can be a pleasant diversion)."

    This is a wonderful analogy! Minus the details of how they're bound, books have existed on more or less equal footing with one another. And once you're engrossed in the act of "drink" a book, the quality of binding is largely irrelevant.

    Of course with networked distribution and ubiquitous reading devices folks who want to make money selling information have to do things that not just anybody can do, so it's no surprise that there's a drive towards resource-intense approaches; vast marketing and promotion campaigns being one that (sometimes) works, and books being more like movies/video games being an (at the present) alluring alternative.

  • Vince Virgilio said...

    Of course, the line between wine and whine is sometimes difficult to draw.

  • "Long-form reading, with its demands of extensive and intensive concentration, single-minded attention, is not the only kind of reading. Nor is it the only valuable kind of reading. But it rarely gets mentioned in these conversations about “the future of the book.”

    Ruminating more on this, when I went away on my boat, I deliberately took books that were not easy to read. Not because I wanted difficult dense books, but because space was limited and I wanted the most reading per pound I could get.

    I'm thinking of this, because when I use the word "valuable" I find it helpful to ask myself "valuable to whom? And under what circumstances?"

    A detour:

    I have dental issues. For a variety of reasons, my most petulant self expresses itself through my habits regarding dental hygiene; and maintain proper dental habits requires (to borrow Alan's phrase) herculean self-discipline.

    Except at sea.

    At sea my dental hygiene habits are exemplary. Why? Because even something as mundane as brushing my teeth, something I actually feel resentful about having to do when I'm ashore, is a welcome relief from the monotony of life at sea.

    And just now I am remembering having almost the exact same convo with my Polish born camera mechanic (and former Physics prof in Poland) about why Russian, Chinese, etc student excel at math and related disciplines. He offered, with a flat, judgement-free, perhaps even admiring tone that American children simply have much more interesting things to do than crack books.

    Already too long and too whiney, but to (try and) bring it back, solitary reading of long texts and the benefits there of may simply be on it's way joining the realm of mathematics; regarded by most learned people as an arcane pursuit, master-able by and enjoyed only by those with a special sort of discipline.

    Or maybe it's like brushing one's teeth. Something we know we should to more often, but resent being told that we should.

  • Or maybe it's like brushing one's teeth. Something we know we should to more often, but resent being told that we should.

    Which is why my book about reading doesn't once say that reading is good for you.

  • What pops into my head at this moment is B&H photo. It's one of the most successful, if not the most successful retailers of photo and video equipment in New York City; and perhaps beyond. But it's run and mostly staffed by Jews, and so they're not open on Saturday; nor are they open on any of the other Jewish holidays.

    No doubt this costs them a lot of money in lost business, but they seem to do well enough anyway.

  • Nelson, Coupland, and Alice are a perfect instance of what Bruce Sterling calls "design fiction." Ebook marketing is full of design fiction, precious little of which reflects any recognizable reading reality.

  • "Which is why my book about reading doesn't once say that reading is good for you."

    I woke up thinking about this, and the Jews at B&H Photo and my mind drifted back to some bits and pieces I had read criticizing "spiritual, but not religious" as a sort of have your cake and eat it sort of posture towards faith.

    From there I wandered over to the black out sequence in Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam" and the intercutting between Harlem tearing itself apart while in the insular, cul de sac'd (and stifling) the local mob boss had the feast lights strung up, and all was peaceful and quite.

    In the bad old days in New York this was a simple truth; if you lived in a mob/italian neighborhood, you didn't have to worry about street crime; and it was not uncommon for single women (and others) to purposely seek out apartments in these neighborhoods for just that reason. In the absence of state control, the mobsters held a de facto monopoly on violence.

    On the other hand, these neighborhoods were notoriously racist, and would not tolerate non-whites moving in. My direct of photography's father (Ecuadorian) was died when his mechanic's shop was set ablaze and he was trapped inside. More famously, Michael Griffith and two friends where beaten by a gang in Howard Beach, and Griffith was killed when he has struck by a car trying to escape.

    All rather far afield from the future of books and/or the future of reading of long texts. But if there's a connection, perhaps it is this:

    For some people some choices are very hard to make without strong outside influence -- the limitations of circumstance, or the encouragement of community; dental hygiene, a day of rest, sustained uninterrupted reading, murder being the examples that have wandered into my mind.

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