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When the books don’t work

Written by Chris Routledge, 29th July 2008

In 1985 I bought my first 'Walkman', actually a cheap Sony Walkman lookalike wannabe personal tape player that I could listen to in the street with small, foam-padded headphones. The battery life was terrible--and non-rechargeable--and the sound quality was grim, but it felt like a revolution to me. Suddenly I could take my music wherever I went, provided I could carry enough batteries. In the early 1980s the ways we listened to music were changing. Looking back, the number of formats was bewildering. There was the vinyl LP, the 12 and 7-inch single, the CD--if you could afford it--and the cassette tape, which had a following all of its own. Since then of course we have added music downloads, the rise of the mp3 player, and--if you can afford it--music streamed to every room in the house. Music fans have never been afraid of new formats and new ways of listening. For them, the music is what matters.

But what about readers? There's a lot of gnashing of teeth at the moment about the future of the book and the future of reading. On Sunday The Observer ran a feature on the rise of e-readers such as the iRex iLiad, Sony Reader, and the Kindle. More heat and noise is being generated by people worrying about 'Reader's Block', roughly defined as a condition of buying more books than you read. On that definition I have always suffered from the complaint and so I suspect have most habitual readers, but recently I've noticed a definite change in my reading pattern. It's not that I'm reading less, but I am reading differently. Books are no longer my go-to technology for stories; there isn't one of those any more. I'm reading online, I'm listening to audio books, I'm reading more magazines, and for a few years now I've been reading eBooks, first on a Palm PDA and now on my iPod Touch. I read far fewer physical books, but I'm reading more than ever.

The book, as every one of these edgy articles about the coming barbarian techno-hordes points out, is a clever piece of technology. It's portable, tough, and needs no power. Unless you want to read in the dark, that is, which I often do. But the physical book has become much more than a technology for text delivery. It is inextricably tied up with education, culture, and class. People make judgements about one another based on the books on their bookshelves, or on their choice of reading for the commute. Physical books are a mark of status. As Lynne Truss points out in the Observer's feature, with eBooks you can't see what people are reading. She says it as if that's a bad thing, but it's not, it's a liberating thing. I don't want people like Lynne Truss making instant judgements about me on the basis of what I'm reading, but for the record, while it may look as if I'm ruining my hearing listening to thrash metal on my iPod, in fact I'm probably listening to short stories from the New Yorker. If you see me staring out of the train window with headphones on, Lynne, ask me what I'm reading.

In any case, these new ways of reading entail engaging with other readers in ways that Gutenberg could not possibly have imagined. In a typically facetious comment on Twitter, Merlin Mann, aka hotdogsladies wrote: "Re "Why I left Books": Margin notes [are not the same as] anonymous comments. I cannot self-link to my Blogspot site from a margin note." The New York Times backs this up in an article on how reading is changing:

Zachary craves interaction with fellow readers on the Internet. “The Web is more about a conversation,” he said. “Books are more one-way."

The kinds of skills Zachary has developed — locating information quickly and accurately, corroborating findings on multiple sites — may seem obvious to heavy Web users. But the skills can be cognitively demanding.

Something is happening to the way we read and it's happening very quickly, but the possibilities are opening up, not closing down. Why fetishise the physical book when we can read aloud, or be read to, read online, on our phones, or on our ebook reading devices (NB. you need a better name for those, chaps)? The books won't stop working just because we start using other technologies and in fact as demand for physical books declines the quality of them as objects may well improve--apocalyptic booksniffers rejoice! Naomi Alderman in her piece in the Observer even suggests that new reading technologies will lead to new literary forms. I think she's right about that, even if, for the time being, the technology is still as clunky as my tape player in 1985.

Posted by Chris Routledge


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