In Praise of Not-Reading

Reading is, in these days, an over-rated activity.

Most of what is most important about books is now about not-reading them. I was reminded of this deep but counter-intuitive truth by a blogger (An American Editor) recently complaining that his To Be Read pile (TBR Pile) was getting unmanageable because it was full of ebooks that often cost nothing and were without physical presence.

Which brings us to the special problem of ebooks. Yes, ebooks are a special problem because they take up virtually no space — just a bunch of bits and bytes, digits if you will, on a disk that can store gigabytes of digits. And so that TBR pool steadily grows. I looked this morning and I have more than 300 TBR ebooks, and that pile keeps growing. Acquiring Books for the TBR Pile: The Special Case of eBooks

American Editor is here admitting to a very old-fashioned mistake. He has not caught up with the twenty-first century. Books are now not really for reading — or to be more accurate — they are only occasionally, under the most special circumstances, for reading. Publishers are partly to blame for this (culpable, since all publishers, especially of newspapers and magazines, know that their profits are entirely dependent on selling stuff that the customers do not read) and digital book experts would be much more on the button if they spent less time fretting about ‘reading‘. And part of the problem is that the digital experts operate with a vastly over-simple model of what reading is. The conventional wisdom is that proper reading (sometimes called ‘long form reading’ — a ghastly phrase for a dubious concept) is the measurable phase in which you open all the pages of the book and look at them, the hours and minutes through which a book, conveyor-like, passes, between the moment that you bought it and the moment that you shelve it in your personal library, never to be looked at again. Incidentally, ‘re-reading’ is a much more interesting concept than mere ‘reading’, but we note that in passing and may return to the topic on another occasion (you will have observed that you can do that with writing as with reading). This Taylorean model of, conveyor-like, reading predicates that in serious reading our eyes scan more or less consecutively the whole book from page 1 to page umpteen. Efficiently and quickly. The time and motion expert holding a stop-watch, just as Google analytics calibrates our use of the Google library. As though reading a book might not actually comprise understanding it, or failing to enjoy it, or realising pretty instantly that it was not worth reading at all. Under any circumstances.

Of course, reading has always been, but is becoming steadily more, episodic; very little of our reading is like this conventional model of continuous reading, and most of us who now work in intellectual or bureaucratic activities which involve web-based reading, spend a lot of time, yes reading, in ways which are not at all like the way you first read and enjoyed Babar, P.G. Wodehouse or Jane Austen. You see, we spend a lot of our time and energy deciding what not to read. And these decisions matter. Possibly even as much as enjoying Babar, or re-reading Jane Austen.

Our understanding of digital books would be much better if we spent less time wondering about how we might read them, and a lot more time thinking about the ways in which we may use them without necessarily, or even at all, reading them. For certainly, and beyond all doubt, when there are 20 million books in Google Books Search we will not seriously, continuously, read more than the tiniest fraction of them. There are a lot of things that we need to do with books and it is not at all clear to me that we have a framework in which these activities can take place with digital books, half as effectively as with print books. For example, we need to be able to:

  • search them (that activity appears to be brilliantly covered by the already mentioned Google Books Search)
  • provide access to them (possibly well covered, in the USA, by the afore-mentioned)
  • buy them
  • listen to them
  • lend them to a friend or a colleague
  • translate them (well)
  • quote from them
  • (ideally) cite them when we quote them
  • non-consumptively compute them (we none of us know quite what that might involve)

These are all important points, but I will admit to playing a rhetorical trick with this list, my bullet points, and the bold face. The key point about the list is the recurrent ‘them’. There are so many things that we need to do with books aside from, and apart from reading them. The key thing about digital books is that we need them. We need digital books to be the ‘object’ of all these newly digital verbs and activities. Digital books need to be as versatile and as ‘real’ as physical books in all these ways, even though they are now becoming entirely virtual and insubstantial. The big challenge that Google, Apple and Amazon have yet to project is that books themselves are becoming networked. And the Google, Apple and Amazon models of network usage will inevitably fail if they are not truly book-centric.

May I recommend (unreservedly, though I have forgotten most of it, and disagreed with much of it) Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Have Not Read. Which, in case you mistakenly decide not to read it, has many reviews here.


Why the iPhone is a better Reading Environment I

People have noticed that the iPhone is becoming a great environment in which to do some serious reading. But I am not sure that we have yet fully recognised why it has changed our expectations of the optimum digital reading environment. One point was recently well made by Hugh McGuire the Canadian blogger, publisher, philosopher. (He also leads Librivox).

My experience of reading news on iphone is totally different than reading on the web: on the web I flit from place to place, on the iPhone I read much like I would a newspaper … going through the whole thing, reading multiple articles. And as mentioned I might possibly pay for it on the iPhone.

I think this is a fascinating shift in my content consumption … back to an older, more focused kind of reading. (Quoting Hugh McGuire from an email).

This is a subtle point. The iPhone is a better reading environment because it is NOT completely of the web. I think its really a point about the way Apps work on the iPhone, rather than the way that the web, or Safari, works on the iPhone. In my experience, browsing the web on my iPhone is just about as mercurial and unsticky as browsing from the laptop, but the apparatus of the App (only one App at a time, they take a moment or two to fire up) tends to give them some valuable friction. A retaining wall, which if it is not a ‘walled garden’ is something like a ‘reader’s carrel’. There is a threshold with each App, which keeps you within the App in which you are browsing; whereas when one is reading a news site on the wild web it is just too easy to be distracted. Every link is a link out. Its too easy to flip over to something else, there are no boundaries to a web newspaper or a web magazine. But there are some subtle boundaries to an App which is branded for a newspaper or a magazine.

It could be that the ‘Appy’ quality of serious reading on the iPhone is the key to developing an effecitve publishing culture in that environment. There is a lesson here for book, magazine and newspaper publishers. Get your Apps in order!

There is another reason that the iPhone reading experience is subtly different. Touching. There is something special about touching what you read, more about this on another occasion….

Nostalgia for Books

Robert Darnton made an impressive cameo presentation speech at JISC’s Oxford Conference on The Library of the Future (Presentations, Twittering). Darnton made some interesting points about Google Book Search and what libraries should be doing (appealing to Google’s better nature and public spirited-ness, which may work?). One throw-away remark of his caught my attention:

“Someone born in 2010 will not feel nostalgia for the printed book.”

He might be right about that. Think about the implications. This year, next year or the year after is a tipping point for digital books. He clearly isnt saying that three year olds will not be having Babar read to them in 2013. But it could be that a lot of kids will be having Babar read to them from iPhones or colour Kindles in 2013. A lot of folk in the publishing industry would say that Darnton is being a bit early with that conjecture, but if you look at the way that the iPhone and netbooks have jumped forward in the last year or two, he could be spot on. Bedtime stories in many households will be coming from mobile devices, of course with colour screens, in three or four years time. In three or four years time many households that cannot afford colour books will have mobiles with colour screens.

But I think that there is another implication of his remark. People will not in five or ten years time be feeling nostalgic for print books. They will be very excited about what you can do with real books, digital books. Sure printed books will still be collectable and valuable, some of us will prefer them to digital books. Just as a few of us prefer vinyl to digital recorded music, but it will be a small minority. It may be a very small minority. Do you still know people who use typewriters over computers, who use slide rules over calculators? Not many left.

When digital books have really arrived they will be so much better than print books that nobody will feel nostalgic for print. The books and the libraries of 2020 will be vastly more useful and vastly more accessible than those that we have now. Darnton is right. Also, though he did not say this: not only will the digital libraries be so much better than the merely print-based libraries of the 1970s, they will also be so much unlike our early efforts to create digital books and digital libraries, that readers of 2020 will be looking back on the primitiveness of our current Kindles, EPUBs, GBS and other efforts with embarasment. Do any of us remember how clunky the first calculators were? About digital books and magazines I am an unmitigated optimist.

Even about newspapers. The few remaining digital newspapers will be great once the publishers have learnt how to make them work. There is still a huge amount of fear of digital in the publishing industry. There needs to be more excitement and enthusiasm.

Incremental improvements

One of the major advantages of a software delivered as a web service is that one can make steady improvements to the service, with (one hopes) no adverse impacts on the expectations of users. On average we have been tweaking and improving our service more than once a week in 2008. Here are the figures for the number of new site releases since we started:

2005 28
2006 32
2007 58
2008 76

Our big steps in 2008 included: shops/stores that could be branded per publisher, iPhone enhancements (especially a mini toolbar for the small format screen), ASCII text for the print impaired and Google (odd that Google should be bracketed with the ‘print impaired’?), greatly increased flexibility in showcasing samples of subscriber content, live post codes, promotional codes, user stats for our library customers etc…. There are more radical improvements to come in 2009. And I am sure plenty of small adjustments as well!

Wii Magazines

Reading The Spectator on your TV

If buying a Wii to improve your fitness and well being is not enough for you, its also quite OK to buy a Wii so that you can project your magazine subscriptions on to the TV in your lounge or kitchen.

Just a reminder that digital editions benefit from being pure web solutions. If a digital magazine or book runs on any standard web browser then it should run on any new web-connected gadget or device that appears in the consumer market (with the emerging Android open standard there are going to be quite a few). Take home lesson for publishers and aggregators: there is no need to develop and support different versions of your content for a multitude of platforms. Just make sure that your content is available on the web through a standard web browser. That is what software compatibility now means.