With the launch of Apple’s iPad, some of the literary web is focusing on the impending doom and loss that the e-book revolution will bring. Though some of the major publishing houses have welcomed the iPad with open arms, others are less eager to sign on.
Yet beyond the publishing houses, there’s a whole group — the consumers of books — that is very much concerned with the way in which e-readers will change how we read. It’s the readers of books, after all, that will be affected most by a switch from print to digital. Lost will be the days of curling up with a yellowed and musty book adopted from your local library. Farewell to those nights when you, on an impulse, run to your local bookstore and return with more than you ever intended to purchase and sit up reading until the wee-hours. Adios to those cookbooks with grandmama’s annotations, sprinkled with splotches of her world famous pasta sauce. While these moments have the potential to be lost to modernity, they will be replaced by new experiences with the written word — albeit, perhaps less fragrant
And yet still, there are those who are now, as in Mokoto Rich’s article in the New York Times, lamenting another loss, the culture of reading. You know the scenario, but here’s my anecdote. I’m sitting on the shuttle to my gym. The girl sitting across from me is about my age, she’s dressed similarly to me, wearing glasses, and she has a yoga mat strapped to her bag. In other words — she could or could not be my future best friend. In her lap is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I think to myself, “I wonder if that book is any good.” Maybe I go home and read reviews of the book. Maybe I take a leap of faith and purchase it right away. But regardless, I’m now seeing the book as something of interest to me because I see myself in its readers.
These types of encounters happen all of the time in the culture of reading, and yet as e-books are clearly the way of the future, the likelihood of the scenario happening will certainly decrease. Years (maybe even months) from now, the others on the shuttle will be immersed in their e-readers — much in the same way that many of them are currently focused on their iPhones or Blackberries. And I, looking at each of them, won’t have the slightest idea of what they are reading or looking at. The yoga mat will be there, and the clothes will still be similar, but the only cue I will gather is that I too should be looking down at a device.
But of course, we don’t just get our book recommendations from random people on public transportation. Amazon has virtually changed the way we can browse and buy books, and online communities such as Goodreads have sprouted up to connect forlorn readers to other like-minded folks on the internet. If you are a supporter of the independent bookstore movement, you know that a good bookstore is like a great wine store — its shelves are curated by experts (or maybe just people with a lot of time to read) you trust. And there will always be the world of web reviews.
“Yes,” you say, “all of this is true. But what about when I am on a bus?” With some certainty I’ll say that we can look to the iPhone to get an idea of the possibility for the iPad. Though there are far too many applications available for the iPhone than one could ever keep track of, one category has been getting lots of attention — location-based social networking apps. Gowalla, Foursquare and Whrrl are the big three, but I’m sure there are others out there. What these apps all provide is the ability to know where your friends are and let others know where you are by “checking in” to restaurants, bars, bookstores, etc. The apps also identify your location and then tell you “What’s Trending” near you. Right now, for instance, the coffee shop up the street from my office is trending (10 people have checked in).
So what does all of this have to do with the iPad and the culture of reading? Currently, when I search ‘Literature’ or ‘Books’ or ‘Reading’ in the App Store, I come up with pages and pages of apps. Many of them help you read e-books or listen to audio books. Some of them are actual compilations of certain types of literature (Classics, Shakespeare, etc.). And there are others, such as Electric Literature or Small Chair that operate like magazines, feeding subscribers weekly or monthly exclusive bits. From my cursory view, only one of the apps, the Goodreads app, actually has a community element baked into it. There is potential here and I’m not a product person so I can only imagine a sliver of the myriad, though I will try.
What if there were a way to know what people near me were reading? What if I could find out what other books they’ve read to know better if they’re a compatible recommender of books? What if I couldn’t judge a book by a yoga mat? Would I find better matches, or perhaps more accurate ones? Because though the girl across from me might look like my type of friend, I may actually hate The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and let’s be honest, what 20-something girl in San Francisco doesn’t practice yoga. Certainly not all of them share my literary tastes. Perhaps, even, my taste in literature is more compatible with the quinquagenarian sitting at the back of the shuttle.
While it sounds like a huge invasion of privacy to know that someone near me named Ed is reading the Twilight Saga, if Ed wants me to know, then I could potentially learn from Ed by knowing that not just is he reading New Moon, but he’s also a huge fan of Poe and just finished a collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates that I didn’t even know existed. By not judging Ed for the fact that he is a fifty-five-year-old male wearing tube socks, I transcend the shackles of whom I imagine I can identify with — as a reader and beyond. I can identify with anyone, and that’s really the point of technology: to open up the world.
We are social creatures by nature and we like to observe the people around us — public transportation sometimes gives us no other choice. But just because technology will change the way we read does not mean that a new culture of reading won’t be born of it. Indeed, our constant has always been change. Though seemingly scary now, I’m confident that whatever amount of visual transparency we lose from going digital we will gain in learning a bit more about ourselves and the world outside of our walls of judgment.
[Image credit:Bruce Clay]