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Publisher: Bluejack

January, 2009 : Feature:

The Cloud and the Networked Book

Science Fiction and the Future of Reading

What will the future of reading be like? Will reading long form narratives be imperiled by our fast-paced modern world? We are entering a future in which we are always connected, receiving feeds, emails, and phone calls. Cellphones are rapidly becoming portable, as are touchscreen computers. In ten years cell phones and small portable computers will have more memory and capabilities than the best desktops today. Everything—our pictures, music, work documents, financial info, books, videos, personal records—will be available everywhere, all the time. Does this sound like heaven, or a stress-filled nightmare? With WiFi, WiMax, or some other sort of high-speed Internet connection we can look forward to a future of ubiquitous always-on, always-connected computers. The difference between virtual and physical reality is rapidly becoming meaningless.

Many people already live the connected lifestyle with crackberries giving them a constant feed of email and text. Journalists and bloggers stay constantly online through RSS feeds, Twitter, friendfeeds, and email alerts. Gamers and 2nd Lifers experience a large portion of their lives in simulated worlds.

Vernor Vinge's novel Rainbow's End describes the plight of the poet Robert Gu, who languishes half dead in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer's until 2025, when the disease is suddenly cured. He is restored mentally and physically, even returning to a teenage appearance, but finds himself overwhelmed by the future. He is obsolete and without any usable skills. He despises the digital world around him: the computers embedded in clothing, the smart contact lens, and the constant stream of information. He goes to the library at the local university and visits with the other old timers who still read physical books and use old-fashioned laptops. The library is so rarely used now the university plans on turning it into a virtual reality theme park. Vinge's protagonists try to hold onto their relationship with books as one of the constants in life and connections with the past.

How will the digital world of ubiquitous computing affect our experience of reading? Will a few bibliophiles cling to the world of print like Vinge's protagonist? Conversely, does a traditional print culture offer something unique that we don't want to lose? For centuries, reading has played an important role in the development of civilization. Marshall McLuhan has argued that since Gutenberg we have been "typographic man", defined by our connection to printing technology. In a digital age, will we shift to a civilization that's more visual and oral, and less textual? Will reading become participation in holographic virtual realities like the holodeck in Star Trek?

In this essay I'm going to explore the near future of reading with a focus on science fiction, because SF fans and writers tend to be early adapters of technology; the issues I'm raising here will affect SF more rapidly than other genres.

The Cloud of Information

Let's say you browse a used bookstore and decide to buy a copy of Charles Stross's Accelerandoa book you've heard a lot about but haven't got around to reading. After starting the novel, you decide to learn more about Stross. You Google his name and notice that Wikipedia has an article detailing his writing and his life, as well as external links to his work, much of which is available for free online. The page links to interviews, essays, Stross's blog, and his homepage. This set of links offers an enormous accretion of information. A few years ago, if you picked up a book—unless the author had been around long enough to appear in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction or other standard reference works—little biographical or critical information was available. Now readers can quickly find an abundance of information online: some of it social and deriving from fans, some of it from the publisher, and some of it from authors savvy at self-promotion.

One especially interesting Stross link is the Accelerando Technical Wiki. This fan created page is divided into two sections: the first part defines the novel's technical terms, and the second provides a chapter-by-chapter guide to the novel. This guide is especially useful because Accelerando is dense with technical terms relating to the singularity, and someone unfamiliar with recent memes in science fiction might feel overwhelmed. Many of the guide's terms are recent enough that they do not appear in printed reference works. The guide is only available via the web and it is unlikely a publisher would release an annotated companion, unless Accelerando is eventually taught in high schools and Cliffnotes published a guide.

William Gibson's fans have created hypertext versions of his last two novels. Two independent sites PR-Otaku and Node Magazine annotate Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. Gibson's novels, although less technical than Stross's, abound in cultural reference, and these websites trace the references and story elements through Google and Wikipedia. A reader can click on the links as he or she is reading the novels and travel to explanatory or related websites. This process makes reading the novels more like traversing living documents that interconnect with thousands of other pages. The annotating fans—like the creators of Wikipedia—have created participatory interconnected books.

A fan with the pseudonym patternBoy created Node Magazine, which was named after the fictional magazine in Gibson's novel. After he received an early copy of Spook Country, patternBoy relied on dozens of volunteers to collate the data relating to the novel, all the information on Google and Wikipedia. Node also links to interviews and other sites connected to Gibson, and to topics that relate to the novel such as locative computing, augmented reality, and surveillance in the digital age.

William Gibson has recently pointed out that a "Google aura" or "cloud" surrounds books now, as readers increasingly search Google and Wikipedia while reading. Gibson has suggested that everyone creates his or her own novel while reading: tunneling through the text and choosing which terms, memes, and trends to search for over the Internet.

Node recently linked to a William Gibson blog in which he posted a playlist of music. This an intriguing idea because writers can post playlists that they feel would be an ideal accompaniment for their writing. These types of postings are merely one aspect of the cloud of information that surrounds books.

The hypertext, annotated versions of Stross and Gibson's work, are new, but will become increasingly common as Web 2.0 motivates readers to post blogs, reviews, and hyperlinks. Younger readers have spent their lives interacting with their media: mashing up, remixing, and creating playlists on iTunes rather than listening to the traditional album format.

Scholars have long produced annotated versions of books. Three of the best annotated books today are Harold Jenkins' Hamlet, Alastair Fowler's Paradise Lost, and Stephen Booth's Shakespeare's Sonnets, each of which guides readers to a rich tradition of readings, interpretations, and scholarship about complicated literary works. The most influential line of critical books today is the Norton Critical Edition series. Norton offers editions of Paradise Lost and Hamlet with extensive annotations, though neither of those editions are as rich as Jenkins and Fowlers's, which offer 100-200 pages of excerpted critical commentary.

Annotations date back—at least—to the Library of Alexandria, which employed scholars whose role was to annotate and provide marginalia to ancient literature, and to medieval scholastics who annotated the Bible and the Church Fathers. Computers and digitized books will make it immeasurably easier for talented amateurs to annotate books and share them with others. This change will turn out to be a mixed blessing. When Alaistair Fowler provides comments on Paradise Lost, you know that he's a scholar who has spent decades studying, teaching, and reading scholarship about Milton. He may not always be right, but his expertise, and the fact that a scholarly press edited and vetted the book lends his annotations and marginalia legitimacy. When Joe Internet provides his annotations "proving" that Shakespeare didn't write the plays, they were written by Francis Bacon, Thomas de Vere, or the Loch Ness Monster, the information can be both misleading and a waste of time.

Fan created annotated books will have to be approached with the type of skepticism that we currently approach—or should approach—blogs and web sites. At their best, amateur annotations and marginalia have a promising future with the rise of Web 2.0 and social media, allowing readers to participate more deeply in literature, but they rarely, if ever, go through the vetting process and face the unfortunate possibility of being entirely false.

Fan and reader participation is ultimately a good thing because it causes readers to develop a deeper, more active engagement into literature. A person can understand a book in a more sophisticated way if they can add annotations that interpret and describe the text. Strong readers have a tendency to connect different books, and ideas within the same book, rather than passively absorb information.

Publishers and many readers are resistant to technological changes to books, which have been a useful technology for centuries. However, books are slowly shifting from solitary items to networks. The next major step, which is slowly occurring as Google Books and more publishers digitize their wares, is to get books online and for readers to start interacting with them. Books will resemble living webpages with links, tags, and annotations. When you read a book, you can click on a word and get a definition, or click on a term and get a Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica article. Books will be linked to hypermedia encyclopedias like an online version of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. In addition, links will exist between different digitized books. While you're reading Avram Davidson's Masters of the Maze, for example, thematic links might take you to Borges collection Labyrinths, or to Algis Budry's Rogue Moon, or to Robert Silverberg's The Man in the Maze, thus allowing a reader to follow themes and concepts across a variety of books, including obscure books.

If books evolve into a network, rather than remain isolated objects, the transition will help the discovery process for readers. Take the recent anthology The New Space Opera. Fans could do a number of things to annotate the book. They could provide hyperlinks to other books by the collection's authors. They could link to other works of space opera that may not be mentioned in the book's introduction, but could help readers gain an historical understanding of the genre. They could link to reference books discussing Space Opera, or to movies such as Serenity or Star Wars that involve space opera themes, or to critical articles discussing the genre. Networked books will help the long tail of books; obscure and forgotten books could be rediscovered when readers click on hyperlinks cultivated by ardent fans and critics.

Search and the Networked Book

The best description of the networked book I've seen is Kevin Kelly's essay in The New York Times Magazine Scan This Book. Kelly's article describes the significance of Google book search, the latest attempt to create a database of all the world's information, an ambition that dates back to the Library at Alexandria. Google is digitizing books from several major libraries, making an enormous amount of information available and searchable. Google's goal is to combine the information available in major libraries with the Internet, creating the largest database in human history.

Kelly argues that Google Book Search is as culturally significant as Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. A vast indexed database searchable by keywords and structured metadata will allow writers and researchers to connect books and themes in revolutionary ways. The greatest benefit from the database of everything will not be convenience or portability, it will be the power of networking, making every book part of one vast interconnected library.

Just as Wikipedia was created by thousands of amateurs: "many nerds believe that a billion readers can reliably weave together the pages of old books, one hyperlink at a time. Those with a passion for a special subject, obscure author or favorite book will, over time, link up its important parts. Multiply that simple generous act by millions of readers, and the universal library can be integrated in full, by fans for fans."

Tags are another important innovation, allowing readers to post a metadata term to a book or document. "Because tags are user-generated, when they move to the realm of books, they will be assigned faster, range wider and serve better than out-of-date schemes like the Dewey Decimal System, particularly in frontier or fringe areas like nanotechnology or body modification." The perfect indication of the importance of reader created metadata is the annotated versions of Stross and Gibson's books. Both of those amateur created websites define terms and memes that are not available in print encyclopedias, which are always at least a few months or years out of date.

The digitization of books will allow the expansion of knowledge as books and obscure authors are made more widely available. Tagging and linking will allow erudite amateurs to connect ideas, concepts, words, and pages. In addition, clicking on a link raises its status on the search engines, which guides readers to the better documents.

If we read a hyperlinked book, we can follow the footnotes and read the other digitized documents. Citation surfing has long been part of the research process for scholars, but it will soon become both easier and more pervasive.

The ability to find significant connections and themes between different books has long been the goal of scholars, writers, and strong readers. The connection occurs in the minds of readers who mentally link the different texts in their library. The web is externalizing this inner activity: "Once text is digital, books seep out of their bindings and weave themselves together. The collective intelligence of a library allows us to see things we can't see in a single, isolated book."

Many of the changes Kelly envisions in books and reading involve Web 2.0 and social networks. Amateurs and hobbyists add value to books by researching the work and then adding metadata. Search engines will help researchers find connections through algorithms, adding value to books by showing their relationships. Kelly doesn't discuss blogs, but they, along with forums, will add to the discussion of books by general readers, not experts in newspapers and magazines. Digitized books will allow books to become a network of relationships rather than isolated, unitary objects.

Fan Projects

Fans and amateurs will do some of the work of digitizing. An excellent project for a group of nerds would be to digitize the thousand of pulp science fiction magazines moldering in basements and being auctioned off on eBay. Most science fiction before the 1970s was published initially in magazine format, and a great deal of it has never or has rarely been reprinted, including work by important writers like Robert Silverberg and the husband and wife team of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. In addition, the artwork, the cover paintings, the editorials, and the fan letters contain a lot of important information that may be lost if it is not migrated into microfilm or digital format (pulp paper is notoriously prone to falling apart).

If every pulp SF magazine could be digitized, fans and scholars could hyperlink, annotate, and attach marginalia. Links could be posted from author names to articles in Wikipedia. The new edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction will be published in an online edition soon, and links can be traced from stories, editorials, and artwork to this useful reference tool. If the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction were digitized, links could be traced from the stories to the definitions. A searchable database of science fiction magazines would allow us to finally determine which writer really coined SF terms such as "android," and facilitate attempts to trace historical changes in memes and terms. Keyword searches through the digitized stories could trace genre tropes, research that now require decades of reading and a prodigious memory.

For some types of research, it is better to have access to the original physical format, but not everyone can collect thousands of SF magazines. For most readers the ability to search through the magazines by keyword, author, and title would be liberating.

The problem with this agenda is that most of the magazines are still under copyright, so if someone did digitize every issue of Galaxy Magazine, for example, and make it available online, they would be vulnerable to lawsuits. A great deal of science fiction is orphaned work, unclear if anyone still holds the copyright. More reasonable copyright laws should be passed, freeing up orphan works for digitization and annotation, and hopefully a shorter copyright period can be created, one that reflects the realities and opportunities of the digital world we live in.

The central question facing copyright is how it can be enforced in a digital age. Computers are made to copy information easily and share it. How do you then prevent people from burning their DVDs and CDs onto their hard drives and post them on the Internet for everyone to steal? The entertainment industry has addressed these concerns by placing DRM (Digital Right Management code) onto music and movies. This code is intended to make it difficult to burn a DVD onto your hard drive even if you bought it legitimately.

One problem with DRM is that it doesn't work; you can download free software on the Internet and rip your DVDs to your hard drive, and then download another piece of free software and burn said DVD to disc and even make a copy for all your friends before posting it on the Internet. The primary "accomplishment" of DRM is to inconvenience legitimate users who are not computer savvy enough to use pirate software. When it comes to books, anyone can essentially scan a book and post it on the Internet. Copyright currently criminalizes something that can't be stopped copying on computers.

Another troubling aspect of copyright law is orphaned works. The majority of all published work is probably orphaned: out of print, yet its copyright holder is unknown. Copyright laws need to be liberated so that orphaned works can be digitized and used rather than languishing in an oblivion that benefits no one. Copyright also needs to be revised so that it's not criminalizing ordinary, inevitable behavior. For example, if I buy a printed book I can resell the book, give it away, loan it, or scan it into my computer. If I buy an e-book, I can't print it, copy it, loan it, or resell it.

In recent years, universities have started a number of digitization projects—of works out of copyright—that demonstrate the potential of online archives. Projects that could be extended to orphaned works if we had more sensible copyright laws. The Dante Rosetti Archive at the University of Virgina provides access to Rossetti's corpus, both pictures and texts, and includes photographs of manuscript, drawings, and paintings, with editorial notes and glosses in an electronically searchable format. This massive archive—thousands of documents and pictures—could not be produced in book form ( and is searchable, facilitating research that formerly was only possible to a researcher that visited archives at several different universities.

The William Blake Archive is an excellent digital collection of Blake's artwork and poetry. Blake wrote poetry and illustrated it with elaborate original art. Blake designed and published his own books, hand painting the art, thus making the hundreds of copies of each edition unique. His poetry has generally been reprinted as text, or with his art reprinted alongside in black and white. Blake created the world's first graphic novels and intended the poetry and art to be viewed together. The art does not merely illustrate the text; it's an integral part of the medium and message. There have been attempts to reprint the art and poetry together in glorious color, but even that level of reproduction does not reflect the changes Blake made from edition to edition. The Blake Archive offers researchers the opportunity to compare different editions held by several university libraries.

Digital projects and archives are limited only by people's imagination. Another excellent project would be digitizing, hyperlinking, and annotating the Gold Medal paperbacks of the 50s, creating an archive of the post-war, mid-century noir and hardboiled genres; fiction that explores the nature of American masculinity and probably offers a deeper understanding of cynicism and psychology than the more celebrated, high brow existentialism produced during the same time period.

Changes in Authorship

The role of authorship is changing, with collaborative writing becoming more common. The Christian Science Monitor recently published an article on collaborative writing: The Online Book: Team Authors, and It's Never Finished. The article begins by discussing McKenzie Wark, who is composing a book on the analysis of video games. He allows readers to add comments in the margin of his ongoing book, and revises the work partly on the basis of those comments. When the book is published, he will allow anyone to alter and delete information from the online version. The article points out: "Wark may be offering a glimpse into the future, where books—particularly nonfiction—become destinations for discussion rather than dog-eared possessions, and authors take on a more gregarious role akin to Oprah Winfrey or Terry Gross".

The Christian Science Monitor feels these changes are especially relevant to non-fiction. Wikipedia is a vast collaborative book created by amateurs that has arguably developed into the most useful reference work in human history. An online nonfiction book can allow readers to annotate it, to point out instances of author bias, and link to other works that might offer a different perspective.

Collaborative authorship is not limited to nonfiction writers. We've already seen that the Japanese cell phone writers alter and shift the direction of their ongoing novels based on reader suggestions.

There are a number of problems with collaborative writing. Don't books and novels require an argument and a vision, rather than a collective view? The wisdom of crowds is an important meme these days, but how well will it work for writing books rather than encyclopedia articles? It's possible although not certain that collaboration is an excellent way to write a Wikipedia article but not an effective way to write a full-length study of Shakespeare or Jane Austin. Consider this: although Wikipedia contains a lot of useful information, its articles are rather boring, generally involving several users debating until they reach a compromise. Books are most effective when they communicate unique visions or interpretations. If books are team written by a group of people forced to reach "objective," middle-of-the-road conclusions, we may be looking at dull, uninspired prose and ideas. I see a great future for online reading and some form of collaboration between readers and writers, but only time will tell whether books can effectively be team written or produced by the wisdom of crowds.

The science fiction genre has always seen a close interaction between fans and writers, and could be well served by social media. When SF was largely published in magazine form, fans would send letters rating and analyzing the stories, guiding writers and editors towards themes and styles of writing, much as Keitai fans and writers interact extensively. Fan produced fanzines and conventions facilitated a close relationship between fans and writers, with most of the writers starting off as fans. Like Keitai, science fiction is a culture that sponsors certain types of reading, writing, and social networking. Fanzines and conventions were the Facebook and blogs of a different age.

Online science fiction magazines can take advantage of the Web and social media by creating lively online letter columns and discussion forums. Although there are certainly discussion forums online, science fiction publishers have been slow to exploit the new social media. There has been concern recently that SF fandom is aging. One way to bring a lively youth contingent into the genre is facilitating the sorts of social media and interaction that a younger generation of fans has grown used to with their Facebook pages.

One SF publisher trying to provide more interactive, online media is Tor Books. has a blog with its stable of writers and editors providing news and discussion about science fiction. The website allows fans to join in the discussion threads, a good function much like the letter pages of the old magazines. The discussion threads aren't as lively as the letter columns of say Startling Science Fiction in the late 40s and early 50s, but presumably could be in time. The website also provides free stories by Tor writers, and a gallery of cover art. Tor also periodically uses the site to give away free novels and desktop wallpaper.

In Print is Dead by Jeff Gomez, the Director of Internet Marketing for Holtzbrinck Publishers, urges that publishers need to more rapidly embrace the digital age. He points out that the content of a book the emotion, the information, the story is important, not the format. He claims that ebooks have largely failed because they try to directly copy the experience of reading a physical book instead of creating a new reading experience. Digital reading will catch on because the screen can do things a physical book can't do: allowing you to "read a passage from practically any book that exists, at any time that you want to, as well as the ability to click on hyperlinks, experience multimedia, and add notes and share passages with others. All of this will lead to a paradigm shift not seen in hundreds of years" (162).

Successful authors in the future will make use of the paradigm shift Gomez discusses. Cory Doctorow, as Gomez points out, is an excellent example of an author who promotes himself in the new media. Doctorow gives away most of his work for free online, making the counter intuitive argument that free downloads cause him to sell more of his work. Publishers are reluctant to give work away because they fear the piracy that has devastated the music industry, but there's little evidence that piracy has hurt publishing. Doctorow feels people use the free copy to preview and sample his work, and then buy the print version if they like it.

Doctorow is also one of founders of Boing Boing and uses the blog as a way to reach millions of readers, a superb method of self-promotion. Many of the ways Doctorow, as well as my previous examples of Gibson and Stross, advertise themselves is becoming standard in the digital age; publishers expect writers to maintain a promotional web presence, at least a webpage and a blog.

Medium and Message

When books are read on computer screens and digital readers, their message, genre, and meaning can change dramatically. The New York Times and the Associated Press recently ran articles about Keitai, the burgeoning genre of cell phone fiction: five of the ten best selling novels in Japan last year were cell-phone novels republished in book form.

Japan is a technology-obsessed nation where the primary way people access the Internet is through their phones. For the young, cellphones are a bigger part of their life than computers, so they are willing to read novels on the small screen. Japanese cell phones have advanced features and fast data speeds. The new iPhone was a hit in America partially because of its 3G data speed a speed which has been standard in Japan for some time.

Japanese cell phone novels deliver a new reading experience. Readers go to websites where they download classics or recent novels, and can store entire libraries on their phones. Most screens only show a few lines at a time, but with a high quality display the text is clear and crisp.

Cell phone novels tend to be written in the first person, like a diary. Most of the writers are young women writing about romance and emotions for a predominately female readership. The sentences and paragraphs are brief and simple, the characters one-dimensional, and the plots predictable. The novels are dialogue heavy, and reminiscent of comic books.

Keitai alters the traditional role of the author. Writers post their novels on blogs, in small chunks, and allow readers to comment on them. The experience of reading and writing the novels is interactive: readers offer suggestions and the writers often incorporate them. The gap between amateur and expert is nonexistent: the most successful Keitai novelists are fans whose novels have caught on with the readership.

When she was a senior in high school, Rin wrote the novel If You in 6 months while commuting to her part-time job. She has since seen it republished as the fifth best selling novel in Japan with 400,000 copies sold (Onishi, NY Times).

Yoshi wrote Deep Love in four volumes; it sold 2.7 million copies in the book format. Yoshi sees his readers as a community and collaborates with them, rather than retreating to an isolated garret. He gets dozens of emails a day from his fans and uses their suggestions in composing his books, altering the course of his novels when interest is flagging (Associated Press).

The medium and message are deeply intertwined in these novels. Since only a few lines appear on the screen at a time, long paragraphs and sentences do not adjust well to the reading experiences. Most of the writers compose rapidly on their phones with their thumbs, prompting them to favor concise prose.

According to the Times article, some readers think that cellphone novels must be composed on the device: without that the lines, paragraphs, and rhythm of the novel are wrong (Onishi). When the novelist Chaco found that her nail cut into her thumb from writing on her phone, she adjusted to writing on a computer. Her publisher feels her sentences have become more complex, and her vocabulary more sophisticated (Onishi, NY Times). The novelist Mika Naito wrote the novel Love Sky, which had 10 million hits online. She composes her novels on her computer then sends them to her cellphone where she rearranges them. Although she writes her novels on the computer, she edits and rearranges them to make the prose work on the small screen.

Barry Yourgrau is the first Westerner to have success in Japan writing Keitai. He writes flash fiction, and his aesthetic concerns have translated well into the genre. He describes his experiences in the essay, "An American Writing Keitai Lit: One Author's Experience". He made the stories more concise than his flash fiction, limiting them to 350 words and less. He researched websites for themes and ideas that might attract a Japanese audience. He experimented with stories in dialogue form and generally wrote in the 2nd person to create greater immediacy. He produced a total of 78 pieces, which were published for cell phones and then in a book I-mode (Keitai) Stories. So far the book has only been published in Japan.

Technology continues to offer new ways of composing and reading fiction. Matt Ritchtel, a reporter for The New York Times and a published novelist, has started writing a novel on Twitter, the microblogging service. Twitter allows its users to post blogs of 140 words or less, so Ritchel is composing his novel in short online bursts and creating a real time thriller. The website ReadWriteWeb has recently posted a list of some microblogged novels, demonstrating that the genre is still small but might eventually attract more readers and writers.

Cell phone and microblogging novels have not caught on in the U.S. yet, but the hardware and software for that shift is developing. I've recently started using my iPhone as a reading platform. Whenever I'm bored for a few minutes, I can read books that I've downloaded. I can browse and scan news articles, the NY Times, or RSS feeds. The app Instapaper allows me to download webpages to my phone to read later, when I'm waiting in line at the grocery store for example. I find the screen remarkably good for reading although a smidgen too small.

The iPhone is not the ideal reading platform—at least not yet. The books on the iPhone do not have the hyperlinks and annotations that Kelly described. In addition, the phone is not built for reading: there's no cut and paste and there's no obvious way to buy and read new books. It's unlikely that Apple will focus on making the iPhone a better device for reading; Steve Jobs has refused to develop an Apple eReader because he claims nobody reads anymore.

However, the iPhone has a store where independent programmers can develop new applications for the phone, so we can expect more reading interfaces in the future. The best app for reading on the iPhone right now is Stanza. Stanza is free and allows you to download a large library on your phone, which it will list by title, author, and subject. It keeps track of your latest reads and shared books. It has thousands of books available for free download. The free books are provided by feedbooks; the online catalog has a large helping of classics and out-of-copyright material, with a smattering of recent books provided by authors who release open source versions of their works.

The best digital Reader for buying and downloading books right now is Amazon's device, the Kindle. The Kindle has an online store that allows you to buy and instantly download books through its WiFi service.

The Kindle provides a number of good features. It uses e-ink, which approaches the resolution of the printed page, and can change font size. It can sustain 30 hours of reading and takes 2 hours to recharge. It holds 200 books on the device, hundreds on the memory card, and a limitless library on Amazon's virtual stacks. You can subscribe to newspapers, magazines, and blogs. In addition, you can surf the web, listen to MP3s, look up Wikipedia articles, and search with Google. You can write marginalia on books, and highlight with an electronic pen. You can send an email to a private Kindle email address and it will show up as part of your Kindle library, which allows you to look at PDF documents and Word documents. The device used to cost $399, but the price recently dropped to $349.

The Kindle is the first book connected 24/7 and as it becomes more widely used it can provide many of the advantages of the networked book. The Kindle has been an enormous success for Amazon. More people may read than Steve Jobs realizes.

The Kindle also has a number of competitors. The Sony Reader has lagged behind the Kindle in sales despite using the same high resolution electronic ink. The Kindle's competitive advantage is its WiFi store, which allows readers to instantly buy and download books. Sony will be releasing a new version soon, so it is not giving up the market to Kindle—as of now we don't know what new features Sony will be offering.

Another intriguing device is Plastic Logic's electronic newspaper. The device mimics the look of a newspaper page. With twice the screen size of the Kindle or Sony Reader, it boasts an 8.5 by 11-inch flexible, plastic touchscreen. Its Wi-Fi connection allows its pages to be constantly refreshed—there's no word on whether it will have a WiFi bookstore. It's a much more attractive-looking device than the Kindle or Sony Reader. One problem with the Kindle is that it's an ugly white plastic brick; the Plastic Logic device is elegant and maximizes screen size because of its touch screen. There's no word yet on when it will be available or how much it will cost. The eventual goal is to create a digital device with a flexible screen that can be rolled up and carried around like a newspaper that's several years away.

I think in the future there will be an all-in-one device, probably something like the iPhone that will be a phone, reader, camera, video camera, and pocket organizer, something with the functionality of the Kindle, a phone, and a laptop. Right now it's possible for someone to carry around 3-5 different digital devices—one device would simplify many people's lives. The iPhone is the closet thing to that all-in-one device, but it still has a long way to go, especially to serve a dedicated reader.

Dystopian Fears

Most of this essay has focused on the creative possibilities unleashed by technological change, however, as a science fiction reader, I also recognize the dystopian possibilities of dramatic change. Now, to give the other side of the story, I'm going to explore some of the fears and anxieties about reading in our technological age.

Neal Stephenson, the author of several lengthy and sophisticated SF novels, fears that our fast paced society of never-ending sensation is making us incapable of extended rational thought. He pointed out in a recent interview: "People who write books, people who work in universities, who work on big projects for a long time, are on a diverging course from the rest of society. Slowly, the two cultures just get further and further apart." In order to get things done, Stephenson does not respond to emails from his readers. He does not involve himself in social networking or marketing himself on the Internet. He focuses his energy on writing lengthy, complicated books, apparently needing to cut himself off from the world of crackberries and the constant feed of information to think deeply about subjects. Despite writing long books himself, he says the digital age has made it harder for him to read a long book than it was even a few years ago.

Stephenson is not alone in his fears. In "Is Google making us Stupid," Nicholas Carr claims that he is losing the ability to concentrate on extended narratives and arguments. Constant Internet surfing and research has made it difficult for him to settle into a book or a long article; his mind starts wandering after a few pages. He cites anecdotes and research studies that suggest when people are online they are not actually reading, they are skimming and jumping from one short snatch of information to another. Carr believes that the Internet is changing how we think and how we read. Just as the printing press made long narrative works widely available and prompted us to concentrate on them, the Internet is reshaping our thinking around short, ever-changing bursts of information.

Carr quotes one of the founders of Google, Sergey Brin, who asserted in a 2004 interview with Newsweek that we would be better off if we had all the world's information attached to our brain. But do we know that for sure? Having good information, or wisdom, might be better than just having more information. It is possible for massive quantities of information to be shallow and misunderstood. Carr suggests:

"The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author's words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas."

According to technophiles like Kelly, we should be entering a Renaissance age for reading—but that does not appear to be happening. The National Endowment for the Arts recently released two controversial reports claiming that reading in America is at risk. The reports concluded that Americans are reading less, especially teens and young adults, and reading less well. Reading scores decline as young Americans reach their teenage years because they cease reading for pleasure. Literary reading is especially threatened according to the reports. Critics of the reports have claimed that the reports discount the reading that many Americans, especially teenagers, do online. For example, many people engage in power browsing: reading and scanning information online. The NEA reports claim that the decline in reading threatens the health of democracy, the economy, and civic participation.

The situation may not be as dire as Carr and the NEA suggest. Reading has a long, complicated history and different forms of reading have always existed alongside one another. Bacon famously pointed out that reading strategy depends on the type of book you are reading:

"Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention."

In other words, texts require diverse reading strategies. Perhaps a blog will merely be tasted, an encyclopedia read in parts, a best seller swallowed whole, or a Shakespearean play chewed and digested, slowly considered, and read repeatedly. As long as reading is taught effectively enough, and remains a part of people's lives, these different reading strategies can deepen cultural literacy.

For books to stay relevant publishers need to attract younger readers, the teenagers whose pleasure reading is in decline, according to the NEA report. One of the interesting things about Keitai novels, despite their limited literary merit, is that they attract new readers. Many cell phone readers are not regular novel readers. Most of the novelists would not write if the medium did not exist. In Jeff Gomez's book Print is Dead, he urges publishers to make use of the new digital mediums to attract readers, something they have largely failed to do so far.

That does not mean the traditional literati does not have some valid points. Many of the new genres of writing I've been discussing in this essay are shorter and less traditionally literary. An 800 page Neal Stephenson novel might not read well on a cellphone. Are we becoming a culture that's losing its ability to read a long book or follow a complex argument? Reading a webpage is a type of literacy and certainly better than reading nothing, but is it as sophisticated a form of reading as sitting down with War and Peace? Will the digital generation of the future retain the ability to read and contemplate long, complicated works, as well as powerbrowse? Only time will tell. At times, like Carr, I sometimes find it more difficult to read a book. A lot of my reading time is now taken up with blogs and skimming through articles in RSS readers.

One writer Carr mentions is Scott Karp, who blogged a response to "Is Google Making Us Stupid." Karp asserts that books are not necessary and that the web provides content more effectively. "Maybe I don't need 250 page books anymore because the web enables me to connect ideas and create narratives that I used to depend on book authors to do for me, because I wasn't able to access all the information and connect all the dots myself.

Karp claims Nicholas Carr "romanticizes the contemplation that comes with reading a book. . . ; it's possible that the output of our old contemplation can now be had in larger measure through a new entirely non-linear process."

Karp offers the interesting argument that the Web may make books unnecessary. The reverence for books is deep in this culture—even if many people don't read them anymore—so few people will be willing to accept Karp's argument. Although I appreciate irreverent and striking claims, I think Karp is mistaken. It may be the case that the millions of documents relating to the building of the atomic bomb will be made available in an online archive, and it's certainly possible for me to spend ten years reading them in a "non-linear fashion," but unless I intend to write a book about those documents I would be better off reading a couple of books. Eventually a Lincoln archive will be uploaded where I can read thousands of documents online and use Google to read nineteenth century newspaper articles, when they are digitized. But am I likely to do so unless I plan on writing a biography of Lincoln? The sustained arguments and evidence provided by books are necessary for reading about and researching many topics. Some topics may be amenable to blogs and the short snatches of information the Internet is so good at supplying, but long sustained arguments are necessary whether we read them in print or on an eReader.

Final Thoughts

I suspect that we will see losses and gains in the reading of the future. One possibility is that we will enter a post-literate age, one in which written text ceases to be a mass medium; people may grow too passive to engage in the cognitive work of reading. I can envision a future of relatively brainless dolts drooling over video and VR inputs.

That type of dark future seems unlikely. There will always be a sizeable portion of civilization that remains ardent readers; there are some types of communication that can be accomplished most effectively with text. In the future, people may read books online, or with rich metadata, video, podcasts, conversations, and hyperlinks embedded. Some forms of popular writing or genres may become videogames, but the more intelligent or active people in society will continue to read.

Some forms of communication will be accomplished more effectively with video and podcasts than with print. Perhaps videogames will impart certain skills and knowledge. Pilots already train on flight simulators and elaborate VR games will be used to train soldiers before sending them to a complicated environment like Iraq, or allow students to practice skills rather than just theorize about business or law. Furthermore, it is possible that the new technology will allow readers to interact more deeply with their reading, thus creating a more mentally active future.

I'm moderately optimistic that the profusion of new media will allow us to communicate ideas and concepts more—not less—effectively. There will be problems with information overload and there will be losses as well as gains, but we will see exciting new ways to think, communicate, and create in the next couple of decades. How wisely we use that media and technology will, to a large extent, shape the future.

Works Referenced

Associated Press. "Next hot trend for Cell Phones: Reading? Mobile technology meets the novel in Japan". March 18, 2005.

Arnoldy, Ben. "The Online Book: Team Authors, and It's Never Finished." Christian Science Monitor. Accessed 8-29-2008.

Carr, Nicholas. "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Atlantic.Com. Accessed 8-30-08.

Gomez, Jeff. Print is Dead: Print in Our Digital Age. Macmillan: New York, 2008.

Kelly, Kevin. "Scan This Book! What will happen to books? Reader, take heart! Publisher, be very, very afraid. Internet search engines will set them free. A manifesto." New York Times Magazine. Sunday, May 14, 2006. Accessed 8-30-08.

Levy, Steven. "Novelist Neal Stephenson Once Again Proves He's the King of the Worlds." Wired 16.09.

Onishi, Norimitsu. "Thumbs Race as Japan's Best Sellers Go Cellular." New York Times January 20, 2008. Accessed 8-30-08.

Richtel, Matt. "Introducing the Twiller." New York Times Online. August 29, 2008. twiller/index.html?ref=technology. Accessed 8-31-2008.

The Rossetti Archive, http://

The William Blake Archive.

Yourgrau, Barry. "An American Writing Keitai Lit: One Author's Experience."

Copyright © 2009, Robert Bee. All Rights Reserved.

About Robert Bee

Robert Bee is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. For his dayjob he manages a library in Trenton. He has published over 30 short stories and a dozen book reviews in magazines, e-zines and anthologies such as Outer Darkness, Parchment Symbols, Letter Magazine, Blue Murder, Parageography, Alienskin, Glyph, Cabal Asylum, Welcome to Nod, Nocturnal Ooze, Dark Krypt, Kings of the Night.


Jan 7, 06:56 by IROSF
Join the conversation here.

Article is here.
Jan 7, 08:14 by Aidan Doyle
A nice article with lots of interesting information and ideas.

"Keitai" refers to Japanese cell phones. So it's better to say "keitai novels" or "keitai lit" than just "keitai."

Jan 8, 18:52 by Elizabeth Barrette
I found this article to be deeply insightful. It takes a thorough look at diverse possibilities. I have linked to it on my blogs:
Jan 9, 00:07 by Bluejack
Thanks for the links, Ysabet!
Jan 12, 21:40 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Until the Internet and more importantly, its support infrastructure (that is fibre, cable, dsl, wi-fi etc) is both free and ubiquitous, printed material will remain more important as a medium for the transmission of information (all kinds of information too, including our beloved fiction genre). DRM must also end if electronic reading is to supersede the printed book. Just as many people will still buy physical cds for their music in order to create a DRM free copy they can then use, I will continue to buy physical books. The limitations of any particular reader is unimportant; screen resolution and size will continue to improve. Accessibility and usability of electronic media must improve before print even begins to die, and even then, there will always be books.
Jan 14, 19:07 by Bluejack
Charles Stross points out that new technologies just about never replace old ones, they just build on top of them. He uses vinyl as an example.

That said, I believe VHS really is just about replaced now.
Jan 14, 19:53 by Lois Tilton
Cassette tape and players for it.
Jan 14, 20:58 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
I still have mine! Haven't used it in years though.
Jan 14, 21:07 by Stacey Janssen
I used mine just the other day, actually. My record player, too, come to think of it...
Jan 14, 21:35 by Lois Tilton
Can't buy a new one, except on Ebay.
Jun 14, 06:37 by
I found it only on ebay too

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