Gutenberg Monument

Relief at the Gutenberg Monument in Mainz, Germany

A column exploring the changing world of publishing and reading

What is happening to books today is as important a moment in history as five centuries ago when a German blacksmith with the unwieldy name of Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg created moveable type and launched the printing revolution. In the years since, technology has made the design, printing, and delivery of books easier, cheaper, and faster. But this latest wave of change — that brought by ebooks — is more than a matter of replacing type, ink, and paper with pixels. Rather a profound shift is taking place in the act of reading itself.

Up until now most books, with the exception of reference works and dictionaries, comprised an array of words that one read sequentially. Assuming readers didn’t close a book, the author remained in complete control of their progress, of what they learned, and when. This is no longer the case.

In the format of an ebook, readers are freed from this linear literary shackle. Words on the page can now act like escape hatches, at the touch of a finger taking readers to other worlds. Even the simplest book can become something like a choose-your-own adventure popular with children in the past. In short, authors are writing works in which they have greatly diminished control over the reading experience. So why should a writer craft an end to a novel that is dependently linked to the beginning and various moments in between if there is little guarantee the reader will be along for the entire voyage?

Leaving the page and meandering cyberspace may be a boon for the dissemination of knowledge, writes author Steven Johnson in the Wall Street Journal, but it is yet another challenge to the finite resource of attention. “As a result,” he says, “I fear that one of the great joys of book reading — the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author’s ideas — will be compromised.”

Indeed, reading is a demanding and learned skill that requires concentration, often contemplation, and certainly a lack of distractions. Ebooks are by nature an active visual medium — in short, the opposite of paper books. “You might think of this new medium as books we watch, or tele vision we read,” observes Kevin Kelly, author of What Technology Wants, in a Smithsonian article.

In an ebook world, the solitary and private pursuit of reading is also transformed into a collectivist activity. Ebooks permit the measuring of all aspects of reading and the creation of a new social dimension. Publishers are able to learn how long it takes readers to finish a work, when readers get bored, and when they appreciatively mark a section. The first two bits of knowledge are essentially marketing information, little different than what most businesses learn about their products.

In editorial meetings of the future, authors might be provided with marketing data to use in crafting their next novels. “We note,” the editor might say, “that your readers don’t like your choice of adjectives and find your dependent clauses ponderous” — a data-driven version of advice offered by the late acerbic crime writer Elmore Leonard in his famous essay “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.” In a moment of droll self-mockery, sadly missed by many aspiring writers, Leonard advised, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Little did he know that writers would soon have the tools for doing just that.

There are, of course, publishers resisting this approach. “The thing about a book is that it can be eccentric, it can be the length it needs to be, and that is something the reader shouldn’t have anything to do with,” Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, told a reporter. “We’re not going to shorten War and Peace because someone didn’t finish it.”

Even so, the second batch of data, the one about readers’ underlining and notation habits, has insidious potential for reading. In the past one might pick up a friend’s copy of a book and discover some underlined or noted passages. But that yellow highlighter or marginalia gave one only a clue to the taste of one or a few previous readers. Now ebooks allow the aggregation and sharing of the underlining habits of thousands of readers, pressing upon them conformity not unlike the peer pressure that drives fashions. The personal pencil tick or highlighting of text is transformed into a tool of conventionality.

Of course, all these predictions could be as wrong as those that forecast the end of morality when comic books came on the scene. It may well be that while technology can change the world, the actual process of reading remains linear. That’s the belief of Dominic Basulto, a futurist.“In short, technological change is revolutionary, but human change is evolutionary,” he writes in a Washington Post blog. “The experience of reading, the love of narrative, and the craving for new stories has been hard-wired into our DNA, and there’s very little Silicon Valley can do to change this, other than by re-wiring our brains.” ◀