“Books are becoming these places to congregate”

I’ve read a lot of stuff in the past year about how reading will change over the coming years. I know reading will change, but I’ve found a lot of what people are saying about it to be depressingly similar to the things that were being said about newspapers a decade ago; a tiresome mix of the messianic, the banal, the sneering, the obvious and the pretentious. Sometimes all in the same place.

So it was cheering to come back from holiday and read two things which really, for me, nailed some key aspects of the effects of moving from the printed page to the networked screen. First up is an interview with Bob Stein of the Institute for the Future of the Book, an organisation which has the kind of brain-clenching presumption in its title which I would normally recoil from. But Stein is definitely onto something with this paragraph:

There is this social aspect: books are becoming these places to congregate, the form of expression is undergoing changes. In most cases e-readers and the e-book developers haven’t caught up to this. There are concepts that are too far afield, like people trying to write a novel collaboratively in World of Warcraft. I have no problem with such a book being considered fiction just like Tolkien but the execution isn’t there. And then there is something like Push Pop Press. Yes, the Al Gore book has interactive media but it is just for one reader at a time. They are simply books with audio and video on the page. We figured that out long, long ago. And it isn’t sustainable. When you’re doing something for the first time you can beg, borrow and steal all sorts of help when it comes to all this content. But when you go back to do it again and again you have to pay up.

via The Social Context of Reading: Five Questions for Bob Stein — Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers.

There isn’t a word of that I would disagree with, and most importantly that idea of a book as a congregation is really reminiscent of something my old boss Simon Waldman at the Guardian was saying about newspapers more than a decade ago. Simon had this fetching image of online newspapers being like DJs in the corner of a party, attracting people into a shared experience through a judicious mixture of performance, curation and personality. I liked the image then, and I like it now, because it speaks to an important truth: that a congregation adds to the thing it is congregating around, whether it’s commenting on an article, highlighting a key paragraph on a Kindle, or recommending a movie on Lovefilm. The congregation amplifies.

The second thing I read was Shane Richmond’s sane but typically forthright piece for the Telegraph, “The Printed Book is doomed: here’s why.” No fence-sitting there. Shane’s point is that when it comes to formats, convenience always trumps the perceived internal value of a particular format. MP3s beat vinyl, and if you don’t believe me visit the vinyl section at HMV. Vinyl might be making a comeback, but only among a very, very core set of aficionados. Everyone else has swapped audio fidelity and warmth for huge convenience; they’ve swapped needles for iPods.

The process is the same for books, says Shane:

However, I’ve noticed that I’m increasingly frustrated when reading printed books because they don’t have a search function. With an ebook I can quickly search the text to remind myself who a character is or to re-read a particular passage. It’s also much easier to annotate and highlight an ebook. I’ve never liked annotating printed books. It feels too much like spoiling them. Annotating an ebook, however, just adds a layer onto a digital file. It can disappear if I want it to.

There are other advantages to ebooks too, such as being able to carry lots of them on a small device and the ability to download a new book in seconds, but it’s searching and annotating that I think are the killer functions.

Not sure I agree that search and annotation are the killer functions. I think it’s the suite that is the killer: portability, search, annotation, instant access to new books and, as Stein says, congregation. And convenience really does win out. Being able to shove a Kindle into my holiday suitcase instead of half-a-dozen doorstop volumes was blissful. As was reading Anna Karenina on a beach without my wrist bending back upon itself.

Picture courtesy of Denise // at Flickr under Creative Commons.