Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading (18 page)

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
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Language Change: “Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote…”

Lingo S changiN fst 2day. tnk u cn kip ^ W it? gr8. NP.

f nt, ur n 4 a vvv hrd time :(

Our language is changing, and lexicographers are jumping out of their ivory-tower windows.

The English language is no longer managed by an editorial team in the austere offices of Merriam-Webster, Inc., or the Oxford English Dictionary. Believe me, I know. I’ve met with their editors at their offices, and the spirit of the English language had fled. The English language is afoot in the world, and she’s not going to be penned up again.

New words sometimes used to take decades to trickle into the vocabulary, but now that happens faster than a speeding SMS message. We even have words that aren’t, strictly speaking, words. Both n00b and w00t are examples of leetspeak, internet slang that has gone mainstream. One 2012 estimate suggested that 8,500 new words enter the English language every year. Most of these are product names, such as Twitter or iPad.

What will language be like in the future? Will it be some strange hybrid of letters and numbers? Will new words be graced with arpeggios from the extended ASCII character set? Will we find serious works of fiction studded with smiley emoticons? Will the great American novel be written on a teen’s smartphone, one text message at a time, and broadcast live on the internet for everyone to read?

Language change is fundamental and unavoidable. That said, ebooks are accelerating this change. Ebook self-publishing, for example, encourages new words to enter the lexicon faster than ever before. This is because self-published ebooks are usually edited only by the authors and not by traditional editors, a shift in the process that is used at major publishing houses. Unpoliced by vigilant editors, new words from street culture or internet subcultures sometimes slip into self-published ebooks, intrude into the language, and achieve mainstream status.

And this is nothing to worry about.

You see, ebooks will hasten the rapid change in language and aid in its transformation. But let me pause for a moment to explain language change by way of an example.

I was in the hospital recently, visiting a friend recovering from surgery. She was coming out of anesthesia, and I was a little worried. There’s always a rare chance with anesthesia that a patient will die in her sleep. My friend had been out for a long time after the procedure and was finally coming round. As she grogged awake, I asked her if she was okay, and what she said sounded like, well, pure gibberish.

I was concerned, thinking she was speaking in tongues or had some brain damage. So I asked her to repeat it, and she did, slower this time. Still gibberish. I was about to fetch one of the nurses, when my friend finally explained that it was the opening of Geoffrey Chaucer’s
and repeated it slowly:

Aprille, with hise shoures soote,


She had memorized the passage as a kid and had recited it to prove to herself that her memory was still intact after anesthesia.

I didn’t recognize that this was Middle English. That surprised me, because I know modern English, and I’ve even studied Anglo-Saxon English. But I simply couldn’t understand what she said. There’s a gulf of centuries between Chaucer and us, and to a non-expert speaking one dialect, the other is unintelligible. I very much doubt that Chaucer would be able to understand our use of English, either, although he’d surely be fascinated.

Chaucer was a contemporary of Gutenberg, and since his time, English has been radically altered and vastly expanded. The Renaissance brought an explosion of Greco-Latinate words into our vocabulary. We can choose whether we want to sound pretentious or smart. We can obfuscate or hide. We can cogitate or think. The older German-tinted English words like “hide” and “think” are still here, but we can use grandiloquent ones too—like the word “grandiloquent” itself. Not only that, but there also has been an explosion of brand-name words, starting in the 1950s. Chaucer would have no idea how to xerox a PowerPoint—he would accuse you of speaking in tongues. Or
“spekinde tungen.”

And it’s not just words that have changed. It’s style too.

English has a lilty, singsong quality when spoken. The words go up and down, like a buoy on the waves. You see this in stylized English writing too. But you don’t see it in text messages. And you don’t see it in business-speak.

I’ve suffered through countless Amazon deep dives and read reams of business requirement documents that, if stacked sky high, could be a splinter in God’s eye. These documents are logically organized, efficient, and detailed and yet devoid of the soul and sparkle of the English language herself. That’s ironic, because all of these documents were geared toward the Kindle, toward reinventing reading.

Text messages and the language of corporate documents are just two of many examples of how written English is changing. There’s nothing singsong about these styles. They’re factual and show how English has been bent. Words are reduced to their bare essentials, and sentences are constructed in business-ese to convey information logically and unambiguously. It’s as if we’re writing for computers or we ourselves have become mechanized.

Likewise, it’s not just the written form of language that’s changing. Some would argue that the content of writing is changing too. That we’re a culture that regurgitates existing facts and endlessly recirculates them, while our spirit of critical inquiry is devolving. In
Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
, Nicholas Carr makes this very point. Easy access to Wikipedia and Google seem to be making it easier for us to find the fast answer, the quick sound-bite. But we’re losing the critical skill of inquiry, of diving deep into a subject through source material such as books and forming our own opinions. If a fact isn’t at our immediate fingertips or isn’t in the top ten results of a Google search, we give up.

By making information universally accessible, ebooks have a great role to play in reinvigorating our critical thinking skills. But nobody has made the text of current ebooks searchable online in a public way. It will be a culture-awakening moment when Google or Amazon or another retailer indexes their ebooks and makes them available on internet search results beyond their own pay-walls. We’ll have primary-source knowledge available at our fingertips and undiluted by opinion or Wikipedia editors. Until this happens, our ebooks are still too far away—even if they’re only inches beyond our fingertips.

Content is currently buried in ebooks, and typically, only public domain books have their texts fully searchable on the internet. What this means is that books—our greatest repository of knowledge and inspiration—aren’t participating in conversations with us online, with the exception of public-domain ebooks that lag by at least ninety years. Social mores have changed. We no longer say “twenty-three skidoo,” for example. Much of the searchable ebook content is culturally irrelevant, and that which is relevant is hidden.

By preventing ebook content from showing up in the results of internet searches, we’re missing out on some great information. This is most true for nonfiction. Even newspaper and magazine publishers are smart enough to put their content online where it’s relevant—but not book publishers. It will take a tidal shift, a sea-change in opinion about ebook pricing models, before this happens. That is sad and short-sighted, in my opinion, because it means that instead of getting expert facts from within books written by professionals, we’re getting misinformation and novice opinions when we perform certain kinds of web searches.

For example, “Is creatine powder healthy when exercising?” or “Can I have caffeine when I’m pregnant?” No public-domain 1920s self-help book offers answers to these questions, because words like “creatine” or “caffeine” were not used in these contexts then. But there are hundreds of chat rooms and forums with wildly diverging amateur answers. Publishers would perhaps argue that this information is valuable and that I should just buy the book and read it. True, but how do I even know which book to buy? If ebooks were universally searchable on the web, I’d at least know which one to buy. As it is now, I don’t.

I’m not worried, though. This will shift, in time, as surely as language itself. Publishers will relax their objections to making content searchable, and retailers like Amazon and Google will quickly step in to enable this feature. And then we’ll be reunited with the words we’ve been speaking all along.

Bookmark: Dog-Eared Pages

A month before I started working at Amazon, I was in Kansas City, the home of a great old-fashioned, retro-modern printer called Hammerpress. It is part of the vibrant Kansas City arts scene. On the first Friday of every month in summer, all the streets are full of barbeque and ice cream stalls and the art stores and studios open for you to meet with the artists.

When I was there, Hammerpress handed out some bookmarks. These wonderful strips of thick card-stock had been printed using old-time Western fonts and crazy dingbats of the moon and sun and tombstones in black and gold inks. And even though I think bookmarks are as archaic as business cards, I still use them when I read my print books.

Sadly, there’s nothing quite so spectacular and well-designed to use when I digitally bookmark my current page. In fact, most of the time, I don’t bother bookmarking my digital reading anymore. When I leave a Nook book and continue reading it hours or days later, it knows where I left off, so there’s simply no need for bookmarking. Nonetheless, if I wanted to digitally bookmark it, I still could—and sure enough, you see the upper right-hand corner of the screen fold over, dog-earing the page.

There’s no such thing as a personalized digital bookmark, though. But then, you could argue that such bookmarks were gimmicky in the print world anyway, just opportunities for salesmen to sell you adjuncts to your reading life that you never needed. Hammerpress will keep doing fine. They make music posters for bands like Yo La Tengo and are not in it for the bookmarks. I don’t know any company that is. It’s a sensitive soul indeed who will shed a tear for the death of the printed bookmark.

This type of demise has always happened as one technology replaces another. I have to admit that, as a bookish antiquarian and collector, I am sensitive to the passage of these older technologies. But as much as I would love to send a pneumatic tube with a love note inside it to my girlfriend, I know it’s impractical and I use email instead.

Still, the humble bookmark could be reinvigorated. Life could be breathed back into it. Instead of appropriating old print metaphors—a dog-eared page—why not reinvent the bookmark? Why not treat it as something at once digital and alive? If the purpose of a bookmark is to remind you of where you are in a given book, then broaden its purpose. Let it act as an agent of your other reminders and to-dos and calendars. Make it an agent of sorts with access to your personal schedule. Give the bookmark a personality, and let it speak. Let it remind you of appointments.

Give it a voice and a personality, and let it suggest when you’re reading late at night that you put your Nook away and get some sleep. We speak of dog-eared pages, so why not make the bookmark into a loyal dog of sorts, one that follows you around in your digital life. Let it also bookmark pages in your browser. Let it run off and fetch new information for you, similar to books or websites that you’re currently reading. Let your bookmark learn and adapt to your own needs and habits, and you’ll find a companion for life that follows you around, that dogs you as you read and travel through wordsome adventures.

But here’s the question: would you use such a digital bookmark? Would you trust it to find good reads for you? And do you even want your e-reader conspiring to make decisions about you behind your back?


Education: Print or Digital?

The ebook revolution is ultimately about culture change. It’s about the impact of digital books on our civilization and what ebooks mean for you and for future generations. Are digital books an improvement, an advancement that will change how we read and absorb information and ideas? Or were we better off with the printed form, the dusty books we’ve held and loved throughout our lives?

The answer, of course, is yes to both questions.

» » »

Digital books are the closest we’ve ever come to Plato’s ideal world. They’re immaculate and reborn fresh every time they’re downloaded to a new device, like Cylons in
. Because of this, digital books are a great fit for schools. Ebooks never get lost or defaced. Schools no longer need to replace books if they’re the casualties in a food fight or if the proverbial dog ate them along with a child’s homework. It’s going to be a lot harder to blame a dog for eating your ebook or hard drive.

Children are highly adaptable by nature, and with the exception of the almost blind, I’ve never met a child of reading age who couldn’t get into an ebook. As adults we may prefer to cling like Socrates to the old way. But trust me, we can all “get into” an ebook. There’s no barrier in the brain to reading once you’re engaged with a book. And if you say there is, if you genuinely feel that you can’t get into an ebook, then it’s probably not written well. If you give yourself a chance, you can adapt to the ebook experience. Children who are brought into ebooks now have the golden opportunity to start fresh without any preconceptions.

Now, I mention Socrates because he’s relevant to this discussion about the barrier between new and old ways of reading. If you think there’s a divide now about reading print books versus digital books, consider that in Socrates’s time, there was an argument about the value of reading itself.

Socrates was born into an oral culture, and his teachers taught him through dialogues, which were texts that they had memorized. Socrates learned early on to challenge and question those texts. He was the last philosopher of Greece’s oral culture.

His student Plato was brought up in the oral culture but had learned to read. Ironically, it’s only through Plato that we know about Socrates, because Socrates didn’t believe in writing. He never learned it and never wanted to commit himself to paper. Plato disobeyed his teacher and secretly wrote down Socrates’s teachings.

In his day, Socrates was one of the most respected (and notorious!) teachers of them all, which is why I think his words are appropriate here. He lived in a time of incredible change, when the Greek alphabet itself was first developed. (That’s an amazing innovation in its own right, right up there with hyperlinks as one of civilization’s most mysterious and unexpected inventions.)

While writing existed before the Greek alphabet was invented, there were no vowels. Greek writing, though, was invented with a one-to-one correspondence between letters in the alphabet and sounds that people would pronounce. Greek was simplicity itself. It was immensely efficient in a way that any Amazon engineer would appreciate. And yet Socrates still railed against it! (Although, keep in mind that Socrates was also skeptical of pockets and preferred, like many others in ancient Greece, to keep his money in his mouth. This is true. He would often hold his money in his mouth while walking around and take it out to talk.)

The arguments Socrates had against reading are relevant and deep, and you should get to know them. He argued that by reading, we were too lazy with what we learned. We would say that we had learned something because we read it, but we hadn’t actually pondered or questioned it the way he would, the way someone in an oral culture would when memorizing a text, by constantly listening to it and internalizing it and gradually challenging or accepting it. Socrates felt that this act of questioning was of supreme importance to personal growth.

Although I’m an ebook evangelist, in many ways I agree with Socrates, because there’s more to school than memorizing facts. I’m of the opinion that a dialogue process is important with any book, that you need to wrestle with the book (or ebook) and what the author is trying to say.

The same arguments Socrates made about reading itself apply to the digital. He’d be out in the streets right now, complaining about the lack of critical skills in children and their inability to think critically about what they read on the web. You might want to read what Socrates said in the
and come to your own conclusions about whether we should read and how. If after that you still believe in reading, then there’s no barrier to digital reading.

If you look at the true importance of what books mean to our culture—and I mean human culture, all culture—then books, in many ways, are what separate us from other animals. Books educate. They convey culture. With a book you can set down all your wisdom and accumulated learning for posterity, and others can read your book long after you’ve passed on and still learn from you. This is how cultures grow—exponentially fast.

You can’t get this without writing. It’s just that simple. There’s a limit to what you can teach person to person through conversation alone and to what the listener can remember and build on from their recollections. And true, you can still say a lot in an oral culture such as preliterate Greece, the same culture that gave birth to Homer and his incredible blind recitations, inspired poetry of the Iron Age.

Homer’s poems were entirely oral, and like him, a diminishing number of preliterate poets still recite heroic oral stories and thus convey the core concepts that define their cultures—concepts like nobility, fighting for what’s right, and truth and justice. But it’s much harder to educate someone about the art of metallurgy or statecraft through an epic poem. It’s nearly impossible to teach medicine or any other science without having a text, something large enough and capable enough to hold the sheer volume of details.

We’re unique as a species, we humans, because we created books as educational tools to augment the little that we can convey orally from person to person. There’s as much of a distance between our Stone Age ancestors and the preliterate Greeks as there is between the Greeks of Homer’s age and the literate billions who now inhabit the earth.

Language is responsible for an explosion of culture and vibrancy and human richness, but it was made exponentially richer by writing, whether in the form of books or scrolls or cuneiform tablets. We’re not born with all of our culture’s teachings inside our heads, the way animals are born, the way animals know instinctively what to eat or what the shadows of their predators look like. Animals rely on instinct, but we rely on being educated, on stories and tales told by mothers to their children or grandchildren. We put these stories down in books so they can educate any number of generations who follow, and we rely on these stories.

We’re born with enormous brains, but we’re born without instincts for self-preservation. Baby ponies and lambs can start walking and eating a few hours after they’re born, but we take years to do the same. Large as they are, our eggshell-fragile skulls are too small when we’re born to hold the wealth and weight of our culture, and it’s not passed down through the generations by instinct alone. We rely on culture to teach us even the most basic things, like how to groom ourselves or bathe or eat and drink. And likewise more sophisticated skills, like hunting or agriculture. These cultural inventions are learned and taught, in turn, to the next generation through books.

We’ve come far in our culture, to the point that we now have digital books and can pick one from millions on a whim and begin reading it in a minute. The pace of technological change—though thrilling—is often confusing. And you can feel like you’re never quite caught up. You can subscribe to a hundred news feeds, if you know how to do that, and you still won’t be caught up, because the pace of technological change outpaces even specialists in the field.

It’s no wonder that a lot of the people I talk to are confused by ebooks. They don’t know which way to turn, which page to turn, which e-reader to use, or why they should even use them. And I totally empathize about how confusing technology can be. But technology is just a tool, like hammers and nails, although fussier, more prone to crashing, and more in need of firmware updates and special USB cables.

Once you get your head behind the ebook revolution, once you untangle yourself from all the different power cords and USB cords and actually start reading an ebook, I think you’ll realize as I did how useful these books are for culture, for reading. Ebooks, more than print books, offer an immediacy of meaning. After all, a dictionary is built into most e-readers, so the definition of an unfamiliar word is usually just one click away.

If this alone isn’t an educational improvement, then consider communal annotations and how they help readers to understand a digital textbook better. Each reader can make their own annotations to the same digital book, and all annotations across multiple readers can be added together. Some e-readers, like Amazon’s, show you the number of times that a given passage has been annotated. There’s often a wisdom to crowds, and in many cases, the most frequently annotated lines in a book are the most salient, the most useful for learning that chapter’s point.

» » »

This, though, is the paradox of ebooks: if you accept that children should read and that ebooks can teach as much as a print book, why didn’t we digitize textbooks first? Because we didn’t. Instead, we digitized fiction, sci-fi, romances,
bestsellers, and yes, pornography. Stuff we knew we could sell. But it’s content that hasn’t reached children in a significant way.

This is the central paradox of our ebook revolution: digital content won’t really succeed until it’s part of our culture from a very early age, and I mean from first grade onward, from the time children start reading. E-readers need to be flexible and sophisticated enough in their features to allow that. Right now, they’re just not adequate.

There are some neat experiments—as I write this, for example, I have friends in the publishing industry who have quit their jobs in Manhattan and gone to work in Silicon Valley for a company that builds e-readers for students. These devices have two folding screens, side by side like pages in a book, that allow you to write and scribble and draw and download and read books.

Tech experiments like this are what we need to really make education work digitally. And until we do that, ebooks will be something that’s bolted on to our culture. Ebooks won’t really be part of our culture until we’re raised with them, until we’re digital natives who stare with newborn eyes at these phosphorescent eInk displays.

Of course, a part of me yearns for good old-fashioned print books. And if I ever had a child, I can see how difficult it would be for me to choose whether to let the child read ebooks or use a computer or even have a smartphone. I’m sensitive to these issues, and a lot of parents I talk to also are worried that their kids will be distracted from reading by videos or social networking apps on an iPad or screeching monkeys in a game built into an ebook.

Teachers are worried too.

Professors are bemoaning the loss of critical thinking skills in today’s students and the loss of active reading skills. When we passively consume content, lazily let our brains stop doing the hard work of reading, and turn instead to the distractions of tweets and games, we’re changing our brains. We are what we eat, and the same is true of our digital diet. We are the media we consume, distractions and all. In the Stone Age, our ancestors listened to birdsong and bee hum, and that was media enough for their minds. Then we developed song and story. But now we’re no longer content with the oral tradition, as Socrates was, nor are we content with reading and writing. We want distractions. And we want digital distractions most of all, because they’re convenient, downloadable to our devices in under sixty seconds.

In fact, our habits for digital distractions and passive content consumption are putting us in danger of becoming a new species.

I’m not saying that we’re going to become robotic Cylons. But we are in danger of becoming a species whose brains are wired totally differently than the humans who came before us. A species that can’t reason critically, can’t engage in active imagination, and can’t read into a mystery and figure out who murdered the butler before the novel ends. With the increasing interconnectedness that our devices afford us, this new species is likely to be much more social, like hyperactive orangutans on Facebook. I can’t say what this new rewired species is ultimately capable of. Socrates himself couldn’t say what the future of reading and writing would hold. He just rejected it wholesale.

We don’t need to reject digital culture altogether. We just need to be careful. Stick to dedicated experiences and be wary of digital distractions. Set a time limit for the amount of time you or your children use in consuming media. Resist the impulse to tweet something every ten minutes. (It takes your brain at least twenty minutes to focus itself again after a distraction.)

It’s easy to say that digital content is
a good thing, especially for a developing child. I myself once believed this. But now I think this is overly simplistic. If you’re objecting to the new merely because it’s new, you become an old stick-in-the-mud like Socrates.

Just as there was a gap between oral and written cultures in the generation between Socrates and Plato, there’s a gap now between analog and digital cultures. All of us sit squarely between both analog and digital cultures. We were raised on TV and print books, but we also had computers and the internet. We see the allure of the digital culture but still remember what it was like to use public pay phones. We’re hybrids. Neither fully analog nor fully digital, we’re able to pause on the brink of this digital gap and look fondly back to phonebooks and pennies and other ephemera of an analog era. But now we turn toward the digital future, toward credit cards instead of cash and ebooks instead of print. The digital culture is upon us, and our children will be the heirs to a fully digital culture.

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
3.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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