What we gain and lose in the future of reading

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"Digital Reading" flickr user jose.jhg
“Digital Reading” flickr user jose.jhg

Some interesting thoughts from writer Baratunde Thurston in Fast Company about the future of books and reading. Writing about what is lost versus what is gained in the switch to e-books, Thurston has this thought:

What if you could download books that had been pre-annotated? I would pay extra to read Freakonomics with commentary by Paul Krugman,The New Jim Crow with notes from editors at The Nation, or the Bible annotated by the creators of South Park. A book could always inspire new layers of meaning, but now it can host that inspiration and a slew of associated conversations.

This is a fascinating idea, and it’s one that is slowly becoming a reality. Thurston continues, talking about the technologies in place to bring the idea of an enhanced book into being:

Yet we’re doing more than digitizing words and adding tantalizing interfaces. We are networking them–and the ideas they represent. What excites me most about the future of reading is the linking, translating, co-creating, and discovering we have yet to do.

This approach to reading is like the MOOC approach in education: it’s about discovery, experimentation and re-appropriation across a vast network of like-minded people (and along the way, you can learn something and pick up new skills).

When we link what we read — whether through apps, social networks, or some new thing to come — our experience of the book becomes more than a solitary experience. The model of Thoreau reading alone in his cabin in Walden is not as relevant as it once was. Instead, the model of 18th Century readers marking up books and sharing them with each other, basically reading as a social act, is the new approach to reading. It’s just a digitized version of this today.

Now, I’ll admit that solitary reading still has a purpose, and most of my best reading experiences happen when I close off the world around me. But I love the idea of sharing my experience in real-time. It’s still difficult to do this, but many new book sharing tools like findings and annotary make it easy to share with like-minded readers.

Maybe it’s still too early to say we’ve returned to our social reading roots, and maybe it’s a technology or access issue that prevents this utopian vision from happening. Still, readers who care about books and the power of a good story are ready to share their reading and hear from others.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.