Thursday, June 4, 2009

Help Wanted: Professional Reader

To provide cogent, erudite and insightful marginalia to digital books and thus help foster social reading. Must be able to read in a crowd and accept potentially constant input and distraction. Digital sociability a must; digital loners, misfits, hermits, screwballs need not apply.

As Clive Thompson writes in The Future of Reading in the Digital World in this month’s issue of Wired, “We need to stop thinking about the future of publishing and think instead about the future of reading…Books have a centuries-old tradition of annotation and commentary, ranging from the Talmud and scholarly criticism to book clubs and marginalia.”

Bob Stein, director the Institute for the Future of the Book, recently posted Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962) online with a sleek commenting system, then hired seven writers to collaboratively read it and provide notes. “Stein believes that if books were set free digitally, it could produce a class of ‘professional readers,’” Thompson writes, “people so insightful that you'd pay to download their footnotes. Sound unlikely? It already exists in the real world: Microsoft researcher Cathy Marshall has found that university students carefully study used textbooks before buying them, because they want to acquire the smartest notes.”

Thompson relates the story of McKenzie Wark, who wrote Gamer Theory (2007), an analysis of why people enjoy playing videogames, that Harvard University Press published in hardcover. Wark, however, published it online using CommentPress, "an open source theme for the WordPress blogging engine that allows readers to comment paragraph by paragraph in the margins of a text. Annotate, gloss, workshop, debate: with CommentPress you can do all of these things on a finer-grained level, turning a document into a conversation." The free blog theme opened the book into a series of reader-book/reader-to-reader interactions, with every paragraph potentially spawning its own discussion forum for the readers.

“Sure enough, hundreds dove in, and pretty soon Gamer Theory had sparked erudite exchanges on everything from Plato's cave to Schopenhauer's ideas on boredom. It felt as much like a rangy, excited Twitter conversation as it did a book. ‘It was all because we opened it up and gave readers a way to interact with each other,’ Wark says. ‘It changed the way they read the book.’"

Digital books could, conceivably, have a URL for every chapter, paragraph, sentence. “Readers could point to their favorite sections in a MySpace update or instant message or respond to an argument by copiously linking to the smartest passages in a recent best seller,” Thompson notes.

The technology is available for digital publishers to link to Facebook or Twitter to facilitate the creation of digital book clubs devoted to a single book with links to every online reference to the book, author, content, and beyond to other books or virtually anything related. The immediately apparent advantage to this over a real-world book club is that you’d only read what you truly want, rather than books chosen by other group members who may not share your tastes.

For all the buzz about it, however, "social reading" seems like an oxymoron. For most of us, reading has always been a private and solitary activity, a way to not only learn, intimately interact with the author and our own thoughts but to deeply focus, become lost in the book and, for awhile at least, escape the boundaries of temporal existence. The act of reading is deeply layered and much more than the simple acquisition of information. While I’d enjoy listening to my friends’ thoughts about a particular book, I don’t want to be interrupted until I’m finished with not just the reading but the thinking and feeling about it.

This all reminds me of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the classic show’s sometimes rude, often sarcastic, always hilarious voice-over running commentary from the peanut gallery that accompanied the worst sci-fi movies ever made. It was a great formula for watching lousy movies but would have been a horrible one for good films - and pointless; no one likes a chatty-Cathy circus in a movie theater. The darkened theater of a book is, however, apparently another matter: "This Theater Available for Conferences and Meetings."

On its face, "professional reader" sounds like a dream job. Perhaps in this context it would be. But in the late 1970s I worked as a "story analyst" aka "reader" for a major TV and film production company and had to read and analyze every book and screenplay thrown my way. Many if not most of them were only suitable only to be thrown. Hell is being paid to read but only crap.

I do not anticipate curling up in bed at night with a souped-up, maximized content social Kindle any time soon. I don't know about you but I don't want a crowd with me in the sack for any reason much less reading company. Albert, my companion of thirty-four years and most successful LTR, is about all I can tolerate. Albert is a Yellow-Naped Amazon parrot. When he isn't attempting to eat whatever book I'm reading, he quietly sits on my shoulder. And though he has the ability for verbal self-expression, he thankfully keeps his comments to himself.

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