February 23, 2009

NOT THAT THEY WERE EVER VERY SOLITARY:

Endpaper: Readers can now alter books as they go along (Alex Clark, 20 Feb 2009, Daily Telegraph)

Turn to the pages of the US magazine Publishers Weekly and you will find a report detailing a speech made by one Bob Stein, the executive director of a think tank called the Institute for the Future of the Book.

The organisation takes as its starting point the observation that “the printed page is giving way to the networked screen”, and that, as a consequence, writers’ images of themselves as solitary beings who, having created their literary artefact, send it out into the world with no obligation to undertake further debate is fast becoming outmoded.

Rather, Stein’s speech suggests, writers and readers alike will become increasingly aware that the book as physical object has obscured the “social relations” that underlie it; and that new technology will expose, rather than engender from scratch, communities of interested parties who will, in a way that sounds rather nebulous, come together to create a “book”.

The key here appears to be the word “networked” rather than the word “screen”. In other words, it isn’t that we might read a novel or a work of non-fiction on an electronic device rather than a piece of paper that marks the change, it’s that we might instantly and easily be able to comment on it and, in certain cases, alter it – a development recognisable, of course, to keen followers of the blogs that appear on the websites of many newspapers and magazines.

The theory was immediately illustrated by the piece in Publishers Weekly itself, which drew the inference that Stein was highlighting a false hierarchy between writers and readers, one that would cease to exist once readers could intervene and easily offer textual comments.

Stein was quick to set the record straight by posting a set of clarifications online, in which he pointed out that he envisaged a hierarchy that would become flatter, rather than non-existent, and that he was merely attempting to describe developments as he saw them, rather than to promote a particular agenda.


The problem is, rather, that author debates with readers are at least as old as Don Quijote. Technology can facilitate the debate, it doesn't invent it. What's more, the writer is in many ways near the bottom of the literary hierarchy--his intentions paling into insignificance beside the readers' understanding of the work.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 23, 2009 8:25 AM
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