Last night, as I was reading Warm Bodies on the Kindle (fantastic, by the way, of which more another time), something significant happened: I came across a “shared highlight”.
In fact, it was so significant I even took a snapshot of my Kindle to show it in action (I realise this is not normal behaviour). The highlighted text was as follows:
There is no ideal world for you to wait around for. The world is always just what it is now, and itâ€™s up to you how you respond to it.
Three people before me had read that passage on their Kindles and had underlined it (others may have done so as well, but did not make their sharing of it public). For me, it wasn’t the most profound thing a writer had ever written, but I’m old, cynical and careworn, and this excerpt with a jolt reminded me that I might not respond to the book as others might.
There’s a lot being written just now about how the experience of reading is changing. All the ingredients are there for changing the experience – digital devices connected to networks, speaking to networked services which allow users to set up identities and share their reading. LibraryThing and its ilk have been around for years, but now services like GoodReads and, most particularly, the Kindle are beginning to plug networks into the moment of reading itself.
Which is all a clumsy long-winded way of saying: everything is about to change. When I worked in digital media, on newspapers in particular, what became obvious to me is that the changes themselves were pretty obvious and easy to describe (see above). What was far less obvious, and in the long run far more interesting, was the effect of those changes on the experience of consuming said media. Reading a newspaper these days is actually just sampling one kind of output from that newspaper – there are many more opportunities to interrogate, discuss and share that output. News consumption has become news participation, and all because of the rather simple step of making news articles permanently available on web servers.
So, here comes the Kindle, which essentially keeps a record of my reading on a server. That allows me to sync my reading across multiple devices, but it also allows me to store a record of what I liked, noticed or hated with others. And that record can then be inserted into what other people are reading, as in the example above. And suddenly – bam! – I’m no longer a single reader experiencing a book, one-to-one. I’m part of an army of readers.
And that changes the text. Because whether Isaac Marion likes it or not, his text has been changed – or rather, my experience of it has – by the fact that I’m being shown that three other readers loved that passage. Suddenly, that passage has a different resonance than it might have had. Of course, this happens all the time when individual readers are reading – an author can’t predict, let alone control, how a reader is going to respond to a text. But when those responses are shared and distributed among other readers, they become part of the text itself.
Also, just an awareness of the audience changes the reading – in my case, seeing that text highlighted made me aware of an audience for the book which is likely a lot younger than me, a lot more hopeful, a lot less cynical. Young adults, if you will. And up to that point I’d not been thinking of Warm Bodies as a “young adults” book, and it isn’t really, not in genre terms. But its message (at least, its message at the halfway point, which is where I’m at) is one that appeals to younger readers.
Where might this end? It’s certainly sufficient to send intertextual theories into another dimension altogether – what on earth can a text be said to be when it’s being consumed, discussed and dissected publicly? Where does the author end and the reader begin? What can the text even be said to be when its meaning can be warped by an intervention over which the author has no control at all?
That’s head-spinning stuff, but one for literary theorists. I’m more interested in what it means for the novel itself. For me, this represents a potential great leap forward for the art form I’m trying to work in. It’s not about adding interactivity, “deep media” or turning books into “interactive experiences,” because books are becoming interactive purely by virtue of being available on networked platforms. I’m by no means sure I know what on earth that means for an author – all I know is that things are going to change, the changes will be exciting, and we’d better get used to the idea if we’re not going to miss amazing opportunities for creation and narration.
And with that I endeth the lesson.