Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Social Reading

I have to agree with The New Yorker's dim take on Steven Berlin Johnson's optimistic vision of e-books. Though I might not call it optimistic so much as odd. His idea--or part of it--is that the movement of reading from paper books to a linked-up, electronic version of said will create a perpetual dialogue on each book--every line anyone ever struggled with or liked blogged about or commented on and then discussed in the vast community that is the internet. This strikes me as completely unnatural and strange. As the New Yorker points out, books have already started moving online--a lot--and yet we have yet to see a glimmering of this futuristic network of thought surrounding them and giving them a new social context. Okay, people write and read reviews on Amazon and start literary blogs and create fan sites for their favorite authors, but in this books are just like every other subject and project embraced by the internet. It's not surprising that such things should happen. This is not what Johnson is talking about.

The question of books in a social context is an interesting one. Of course your stereotypical book person is not a model social being; she lives in her head and is cut off from the "real world." This image didn't come from nowhere, and I'm sure I'm reacting not just to its persistence but to it's underlying validity when I say that there is something wrong about Johnson's hyper-gregarious vision of the future. I differ here, too, with the New Yorker's assesment of why Johnson is wrong. I don't think the value of physical books as social signifiers--their "attractiveness"--is going to have much impact on the proliferation of e-books either. Bottom line, books are not primarily social things. Certainly they shouldn't be confined within an anti-social bubble. Book clubs, casual discussion with friends, the kind of reviewing and discussion that already goes on online--these can add a lot to the experience, and being a reader can add a lot to one's social self as well, despite the stereotypes. Also, the social context of books is vital to how they are marketed and to how they can potentially infiltrate the culture more than they currently do--the more you hear your friend twittering or blogging about a book, the more likely you might be to read it or to read at all; the more marketers are able to convince you that everyone reads or that cool people read, the more likely you are to do so; the more you're not fully culturally literate unless you've read this or that...etc. That's all as it may be. Still, I don't think the social side of them has over or will ever be the primary reason people read books, and therefore the primary way they react to the experience of doing so is not really based in social terms. When you're deciding what to read, when you want to talk about what you have read, nothing could be better than a community of people to share with. But the space between, the actual act of reading, this seems to exist--rightly--in an essentially private sphere. Johnson's idea isn't much more revolutionary than others who see books becoming integrated into our modern framework, but because his vision intrudes on this private space (the sub-head of the relevant section of his essay reads "You're Never Alone"), it strikes a distinctly unpleasant note. Our culture is a culture of hyper-sociality--in a perverse sort of way that doesn't require you to look anyone in the face, but constant interaction and engagement with the thoughts of others nonetheless. How in god's name would Twitter have made sense to anyone at an earlier point in time? But, and I've said it before, I don't think books can conform too much to this ethos while remaining themselves. When and if they do become blurby and commentable and disjointed and super hyperlinked enough to really fit in to the very social way we process other kinds of information via the internet nowadays, I don't think they will really be books anymore at all.

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