The e-book, the e-reader, and the future of reading
As stone tablets gave way the codex, the future of reading is digital – but will the e-reader and the e-book change the nature of how we read?
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“Today, we have a very constrained understanding of reading,” says Alan Liu, a chairman and professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “In the past, reading was a public act – there were public readings; newspapers were passed around in a pub. I think we’re going to start to shed the current notion of the reader as someone who’s locked into solo interaction with the text.” The future of online reading, Dr. Liu says, “is going to resemble a social-networking environment” where readers can instantly interact with the publisher, the author, and the text itself.Skip to next paragraph
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Sound outlandish? In some ways, the environment described by Liu has already arrived. Facebook hosts several book applications, including one where readers can promote and opine on their favorite books; the majority of authors maintain some sort of Twitter or Facebook presence, the better to chat with their fans. Meanwhile, sites such as SmashWords and Wattpad provide aspiring authors the tools to write, edit, and instantly publish their work.
Just as file-sharing helped democratize the music business – ostensibly offering a garage band the same digital stage as a platinum-selling artist – a Web-savvy writer can now expect to attain a certain degree of exposure, without the hassle of tracking down an agent, pulling together a proposal, or finding a publisher.
Wattpad counts thousands of writers among its stable of content creators, most of whom traffic in romance, vampire tales, or science fiction. The top authors on the site often attract 400,000 clicks or more to each story; the lines of communication between the reader and the content producer are wide-open. The quality of the prose on Wattpad, it should be said, varies wildly. There is no vetting procedure for authors; you stick a piece up there and it stays up there, unless it breaks some sort of copyright law.
But to Wattpad founder Allen Lau, the openness of the platform is a major selling point.
“I hesitate to make any comparison to traditional publishing,” Mr. Lau says, “because that implies traditional publishing is actually better. I would say we’ve become an alternative way for authors to generate large audiences in very short amounts of time. We provide a chance to reach out and have a conversation.”
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Still, many readers worry that the conversation about e-books – and the future of reading – concentrates on the latest gizmos. But does a battery-powered slab of plastic still grip, inspire, and mold thought in the same ways an old-fashioned book does?
“It’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, people will read more on an e-reader.’ ” says Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass. “My questions are about how we read.”
In her book, “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” Dr. Wolf argues that the act of reading is evolutionary. Literacy has come to humans slowly, she writes, filtered in trickles or floods from one generation to the next. One of the heroes of her book is Marcel Proust, the 19th-century French novelist. Proust saw reading as an inherently solitary, immersive act; he believed the best books allowed readers a chance to exercise their own imagination.