A few weeks ago – back in that giddy time I now refer to as B.M.H. or Before My Holidays – I saw this video, The Future of the Book, a teaser trailer for the ways technology might change the way we read books.
Featured in the video are three different applications or ideas:
- NELSON: Giving readers what they need to form their own opinions on the most important topics of our time. Nelson helps put reference materials and other writings into perspective by rating the impact they have had on popular opinion and debate. A multi-layered reading experience allows you not only to read the book in question, but to see what is being said about it – be it in agreement or against – right now, and highlights relevant media stories in real time. The whole idea is that instead of reading one person’s view on a subject (i.e the author’s) you get to see where that view sits in relation to everyone else’s.
- COUPLAND: Keeping you up to date with what’s going on in your field. This application sorts the must-reads from the won’t-do-you-any-harm-not-to-read-this-reads in a professional context, based on the reading habits of everyone within your company, industry or organization. It allows you to access your colleagues’ reading lists and enter online discussions with them. “Suggesting a book to somebody is easy; no water cooler required.” If enough employees purchase a book, it automatically becomes available to everyone in the organization.
- ALICE: An interactive and playful reading experience that invites exploration well beyond just turning the page. Parallel to the text of the book, the story unfolds through the reader’s active participation, “blurring the lines between reality and fiction.” Plot twists, B-stories and other elements are revealed “unexpectedly” when the reader does something such as being at a specified geographic location with their e-reader (e.g. “Get to the statue in Main Street by 5 pm”), or even communicating with the characters outside of the story, such as receiving text messages or emails from them. The reader “co-develops” the story.
Undoubtedly these hypothetical tools would have their benefits, and I love cool, exciting and sexy technology as much as the next Mac user. But I have some problems – and not just the obvious, which is that as a book lover I’m upset about anything which seems to completely eliminate the need for physical books.
(Although as a self-publisher, I’ve got my arms and legs well inside the gravy, um, I mean e-book train. I know. The irony, etc. etc.)
I think, for instance, we all already have a Nelson – except we call it our brain – and is it fair that I have to buy a book in order for it later to become free to my colleagues? You know there’s always the one who never buys the tea bags – having a communal office bookshelf would only make them worse…
But my real problem – as a book lover, as a reader and especially as a writer – is the innocent-sounding Alice.
Alice, if I’m being honest, makes me a little angry.
I get really annoyed when I see smart phone companies advertising things like “all your social networks on the same page” as if it’s a good thing, even a selling point. I got annoyed when Yahoo! mail started offering status updates, and Facebook changed their news feed to keep up with Twitter. I like Twitter and I like Facebook. I like that they’re different experiences. I don’t want to do both at the same time, and I definitely don’t want them to merge into one. That would be boring. Similarly, I like watching TV. I like reading books. I like discussing books I’ve read with other people. I like looking stuff up online that seems interesting at the time but soon gets relegated to the Useless Information file cabinet – or rows of same – in the dark dusty corners of my mind. I do not like doing all of them at the same time, which is what Alice seems to offer.
I want to read books – be it on paper or through code – because I like the experience of reading.
As it is now. No bells or whistles, just words.
Alice says that’s not enough.
Granted, young readers are a different matter. The bells and whistles help them learn, and I’m sure they’d love the interactivity. (I know I used to love those adventure books where you’d get to choose your own ending, even though I’d go back and read all the other ones too.) I’m on board with anything that gets children reading. But as an adult reader, I take offense.
And as a writer, it makes me want to strangle someone.
Writing 100,000 coherent words isn’t exactly a walk in the park on a sunny afternoon hand-in-hand with John Mayer. (Or Aaron Eckhart. Tangent: after hearing what has quickly become my new favorite song, Dear John by Taylor Swift, I think I should lose the Mayer crush. It’s reportedly about him and if it is, boy – is he a piece of work!) Who, pray tell, is going to write these new books, what with their videos and secret paragraphs and hidden backstories and treasure hunts and geo data and a partridge and a pear tree? And text messages from my characters? Seriously? I can barely get them to hang around long enough to round out my plot, for fudge’s sake – and that’s only after a lot of work, coffee and toast.
And at the risk of sounding like a crazy person, I’m the writer. It’s my story. I wrote it because I wanted you to read it, as it is. I love you and everything – really, I do – but I don’t want you messing around with it after it goes out into the world. This novel writing business isn’t a co-op, you know. The story doesn’t unfold by committee.
Considering the lengths I have to go to just to write a book in the first place, all Alice encourages me to do is crawl under the duvet and despair. Tacked to my noticeboard is one of my favorite writing quotes by Gene Fowler: “Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
How much worse are things like Alice going to make it for writers in the years to come? Or will there be a new breed of writers who specialize in those kinds of books? And which of us will be more attractive to a publishing house?
And am I just having a mental health episode, or is this something you’re occasionally mildly worried about too?