WRITING ON THE ETHER: Is Social Reading the End of an Intimacy?

29 August 2013 iStock_000026333294Large photog lainea texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. I Want To Be Alone
  2. The “Annotated” Solitude
  3. Social Reading: The OFF Button

I Want To Be Alone

Recently, I waded into the question of how we talk about the relative isolation (or not) in which authors work. In response to Are You Lonesome Tonight? The Dreaded Solitude of Writing, the Writer Unboxed community got into an articulate comments-discussion of the topic, lots of angles and points of view coming into the mix.

Today, I’d like to ask your thoughts about that person who sits on “the other side of the book.” If an author works largely alone on creating the work itself, how do we see the reader:  also alone?

Start with that tweet from Virginia Quarterly Review’s Jane Friedman, tireless host of the Ether. 

Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer

It takes you to a New York Times opinion piece, How Not To Be Alone by author Jonathan Safran Foer. No Luddite breast-beating here. Foer seems thoroughly and consciously invested in the grid, like so many of us, writing:

My daily use of technological communication has been shaping me into someone more likely to forget others. The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits…We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook

Emily St. John Mandel

Hang on to that and look now at a new essay with suggested reading (news you can use, baby) from author Emily St. John Mandel at The Millions.  On The Pleasures and Solitudes of Quiet Books is led by Mandel’s quotation from author Rebecca Solnit’s memoir, The Faraway Nearby, emphasis mine:

This is the strange life of books that you enter alone as a writer, mapping an unknown territory that arises as you travel. If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker, WriterUnboxed.comMandel, writing about the challenge of finding seclusion in urban life, turns to the related concept of the quiet book.

This is the kind of term we don’t handle well in publishing, like literary and (helmets on:) amateur.  The mere mention of a quiet book can make weird defenses go up quickly, somehow, as if someone has just said that “louder,” brassier efforts aren’t valuable.  For the record, Mandel clarifies, “I have an immense love for loud books.”

But special intellectual seclusion can be found in quiet books, something worth considering Mandel:

Any definition of what constitutes a quiet book will naturally be subjective, but I think the important point here is that quiet isn’t the same thing as inert. I’m not talking about the tediously self-conscious novels written by authors who use “literary fiction” as a sort of alibi, as in “my book doesn’t have a plot, because it’s literary fiction.” I rarely get more than fifty pages into these books before they join the books-that-need-to-get-out-of-my-apartment-immediately pile by the front door. Nor is quiet necessarily the same thing as minimalist. Raymond Chandler’s prose is minimalistic, but his stories aren’t quiet.

The books I think of as being quiet, the ones I’ve been enjoying lately, have a distilled quality about them, an unshowy thoughtfulness and a sense of grace, of having been boiled down to the bare essentials.

Mandel offers six books of that quiet variety  and a quick comment on each.

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Rebecca Solnit

Author and activist Solnit, meanwhile, is on Facebook in a diary entry with an extended commentary on the fragmentation of attention. Her larger point involves her views of the management and monitoring of our time and privacy by commercial and political entities. Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker, WriterUnboxed.comHer descriptions of what seems to be happening to the most intimate element of our time strike home easily:

My time does not come in large, focused blocks, but in fragments and shards. The fault is my own, arguably, but it’s yours too – it’s the fault of everyone I know who rarely finds herself or himself with uninterrupted hours. We’re shattered. We’re breaking up…Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void, and filled up with sounds and distractions.

And this is where I become concerned. How much of the author-reader intimacy are we talking about trading away in social reading? And is it worth it? Back to Table of Contents

   

The “Annotated” Solitude

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Brian O’Leary

Here is our friend and colleague Brian O’Leary—co-editor with Hugh McGuire of Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto—writing in A Snapshot in Time: For the book, new tools and new forms about interactive reading of periodicals and what its implications could be for books.

Earlier this month Atlantic Media announced that Quartz, an online publication it launched in 2012, would start accepting comments at the level of a paragraph. The first iteration of the service is sponsored (!) by CitiGroup…Quartz senior editor Zach Seward describes the comments as “annotations.” …Now, we have a revenue-producing version of the idea, applied to online comments. Among blogs that receive a decent volume of comments…user-generated content dwarfs the original text. Imagine a book that could claim the same.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker, WriterUnboxed.comWhat O’Leary wonders, rightly, is how the very idea of such social reading affects what’s written in the first place; do we still get the same literature?

This new approach bakes social into the creation of a text, and it makes me wonder if anyone who had developed a text in such an environment would ever render it mute. In a world of social reading, print becomes a snapshot in time.

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Damien Walter

That article by O’Leary followed by a few days an article from Damien Walter in the the Guardian, Who owns the networked future of reading? Walter writes as an enthusiast of shared marginalia, and he’s an articulate spokesman.

Readmill aims to fulfil the potential of networked reading. Readers can underline and comment on a text to their heart’s content, then open up those comments for discussion among a growing community of passionate readers.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker, WriterUnboxed.comI wish the folks at Readmill well. Here’s their nice-looking site. They’re a respected startup in our community and I like their talk of reading “peacefully” in a clean-text environment.

This bit of video shows you a new review and highlights functionality introduced into Readmill’s iOS app:
 

 
Nothing our colleague Henrik Berggren and his team are doing at the Berlin-based Readmill, in fact, makes me unhappy except the fact that Readmill doesn’t seem to be offered for Android, which I prefer. And if you’re an author, check this page at Readmill’s site on which you can look into becoming “a Readmill author” with the app’s functionality made available to your work. The Readmill copy: 

Readmill for authors allows you to interact with your readers in a whole new way — right in the margins of your book. See what they are highlighting and sharing, start discussions, and get valuable feedback.

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Authors considering going to Frankfurt Book Fair: See Hannah Johnson’s straight-shooting Authors Guide at Publishing Perspectives.

Walter in the Guardian lays out what this approach may enable for writers. He’s referring here, by the way, to  a time he found a copy of Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs left on a train with high-caliber margin notes in it, a feminist critique of the work. He writes:

Readmill allows authors to claim ownership of their books, and interact with readers in the margins of the text. So not only could I and my anonymous commentator debate the feminist critique of The Silence of the Lambs but, should he feel so inspired, Thomas Harris himself could respond, in a conversation directly related to the text itself.

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Baldur Bjarnason

Baldur Bjarnason has a comparative look, Readmill versus Kindle—Readmill is worth the hassle, in case you’re interested in comparing the iOS apps of the two. Per O’Leary’s good article, a couple more social reading outfits for you to look at if you’re interested. To our purposes of the social features here, he writes:

Everything regarding highlights, notes, online sharing (twitter, facebook, wordpress), and discussions is top-notch.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker, WriterUnboxed.comOne is SocialBook / Open Utopia, developed by electronic publishing pioneer Bob Stein and his Institute for the Future of the Book. You can read a note from Stein, SocialBook in Action, from earlier this month on how progress is coming with the beta program and get a look at what they’re working on.

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Bob Stein

An interesting line from Stein’s evolving understanding (over two years) of what they’re doing:

SocialBook it seems is a terrific example of an emerging class of applications that might be called “[collaborative] thinking processors” as opposed to reading environments or word processors. SocialBook’s structure enables multiple perspectives to be brought to bear on a problem. It’s an exciting real-world proof of Alan Kay’s dictum that “point of view is worth 80 IQ points”

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker, WriterUnboxed.comAnother key startup in the field O’Leary has mentioned is ReadSocial, and you’ll find there’s some delightful tango music behind the video on that page to explain what ReadSocial calls “virtual reading groups.”  In the video animation, folks read the same material on different devices and then interact in a networked group to enjoy such amenities as:

Instant conversations on any paragraph…social features & groups you don’t need to build…additional comments imported from other systems…flexible design (use our layout or yours)…

Travis Alber’s ideas and the slick presentation make this paid service (free trial, of course) pretty tempting. In fact, look at all the fun I’m having. Didn’t I start this thing sounding pretty worried about what social reading might do to us?

I’m not criticizing the work of these startup efforts in social reading. I’m as intrigued as the next person. I’m probably less inclined than some to welcome everybody’s marginalia in my reading. But in the aggregate, I love what digital capabilities are bringing to our potential of networked books, which is the focus each year of the Books in Browsers conference Peter Brantley produces in San Francisco.

 

I just wonder what full-on social integration may do to reading. And I’m good enough at cognitive dissonance—and betting you are, too—to believe it’s worth our asking what it might do to our reading while being excited by the possibilities it may bring us.

Back to Table of Contents

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From VQR: More on poet Cherryl T. Cooley

Social Reading: The OFF Button

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of…

Wait a minute, I’m sorry. I was distracted by a comment from somebody on that line there. Dickens said it was an epoch of what?

You have, I’m sure, heard that we’re now deeply into the marketing mavens’ land of many screens. This means that we watch television with other screens on us and around us. That’s so we can tweet along with our friends while seeing a show. Post wisecracks about the costumes on Facebook for our adoring fans (they love our wittiness, don’t they?). Stab, I mean pin, things onto our boards that we find diverting, maybe screengrabs from the very shows we’re watching, and boy, am I glad this column is not about the rights issues that might involve. Have you tried multi-screen TV watching?

What I’ve found is that you don’t get nearly as much from something you’re “watching” when you’re also trying to “be social” about it. Sociologists now tell us that multitasking is largely a myth. We’re actually switching from one task to another, not performing two or more things simultaneously. And, per a study I covered at CNN from University of Michigan researcher David Meyer, Ph.D., we may lose 20 seconds or more each time we change from one very simple task to the next. Here’s Walter from his Guardian article again:

To understand what a fully realised network reading experience might mean, imagine reading a book published in 2013 in the year 2063. In the 50 years between now and then, dozens of critical texts, hundreds of articles, thousands of reviews and hundreds of thousands of comments will have been made on the text. In a fully networked reading experience, all of those will be available to the reader of the book from within the text.

Wow. What a mess. No, that’s not right. I mean, what a gold mine. Right? Well, we have to hope right, yes.

I’m imagining pop-up notes nudging me with other readers’ bright ideas; reviews rolling all over the place; and marginalia marching around the glowy screen of my preferred tablet reading device. More from Walter:

Authors are able to shape the discussion on their books, moderating comments in a system similar to a blogpost. They can maintain a relationship with all the readers who have enjoyed their books, be that a few dozen or a few hundred million.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker, WriterUnboxed.comShape the discussion? For a look at how pleasant a task handling all that relationship work might be, see last week’s Writing on the Ether: When Bad Things (Seem To) Happen on Good Sites, the Attacks section. I mean the Comments section. (Check how many times the word “attack” appears in the comments. ) Look, will I scare you to death if I write the phrase “non-sexual intimacy” here? Smelling salts will be provided at the door. We don’t have a lot of this stuff left. Not smelling salts, non-sexual intimacy.

  Now that we’re watching TV with three and four screens at once (and missing everything but the commercials); now that music is a mere soundtrack for everything else we’re doing; now that even in a cinema everybody’s tweeting their brains out to each other during the film (no one who reads the Ether would do this, of course). When do we still get together, mind-to-mind and share the dark, “quiet book” secrets of one (author’s) consciousness delivering its wonders directly into another (the reader’s)? When we read. Alone.  


In all fairness, let’s narrow this issue mainly to fiction, because in much nonfiction, there may be many reasons that social-reading tool sets make good sense.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker, WriterUnboxed.com

John le Carré

What about “immersive” fiction?  (Merriam-Webster swears “immersive” isn’t really a word, just to declare my transgression there.)

This week, I’ve been reading John le Carré’s A Delicate Truth (on the recommendation of our colleague Don Linn, by the way).

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, JaneFriedman.com, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, PublishingPerspectives.com, The Bookseller.com, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse, Bowker, WriterUnboxed.comLe Carré is at the height of his powers, the book is one of the most assured demonstrations of its genre, and in a very good season for that line of fiction, too.

I want le Carré’s masterful voice boring its vision into my construct unimpeded, without anything to distract me. I read him in hour-long stretches, no interruptions allowed.

Do I want to get social with that book?

A part of A Delicate Truth is set on Gibraltar, as that unfortunately indelicate cover suggests. So I’m supposed to be trying to grok le Carré’s text and some jackass’ margin notes about his vacation to the Mediterranean go bouncing by as I swipe from one page to the next?

 

The solitude of the reader is something we sully at our peril.

And our busy developers gussying up social reading platforms need provide us with an escape. An OFF button. I will use it. Indeed, if I can’t turn off these fine features when I want to, I’ll be as anti-social in reading as I am (some tell me) in life.

 

The lone reader is social. Solnit and Mandel already told us this:

Books are solitudes in which we meet.

As a reader, I want to meet my author in those solitudes. Just us.

And the masses? Don’t call me, I’ll call you.

And I’m calling you now: Tell me what you think. Do you ever wonder why we’re trying to make so much of life social? Do you wonder if reading needs to be social? Or is this just a “because we can” trend? Chime right in, just give a rest to the word “attack” this week, if you don’t mind. 🙂

Back to Table of Contents

 


Main image: iStockphoto – lainea

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Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

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Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.

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