Get ready for it—the next big thing in the digital revolution is nearly upon us. It’s called social reading and it will change the way books are produced and consumed.
So says digital publishing guru Bob Stein, someone with the cred to know what he’s talking about. Stein played a role in creating the e-book, and he is the founder of The Institute for the Future of the Book, a think tank described on the website ifbookthen.com as “exploring and influencing the evolution of new forms of intellectual expression.”
An American based in New York, Stein was at the Atwater Library recently talking to a handful of publishers, editors and writers about his vision. Essentially, SocialBook, as he calls it, will be a website that allows publishers, readers and writers to upload books, new and old, so they can be read and discussed interactively. The book will appear on one side of the screen with a commentary panel on the other side. The uploads will be subject to copyright restrictions and the site will be curated in order to maintain quality. You might think of it as a giant book club, with potential for all kinds of adjunct activities. For example, Stein sees the possibility of a dating component—what better way to meet a like-minded companion than by sharing a book?
Some who listened to Stein’s pitch were skeptical. Aren’t there already enough time-sucks on the internet? Isn’t reading a desirably solitary activity? And where’s the money in this? The guru seemed mildly irritated by his listeners’ lack of vision, especially the money part. It is his job, he said more or less, to throw off sparks and let others figure out how to stoke the fire. Fair enough. If you had heard about Twitter in its development stage you might rightly have expressed doubts about connecting to the world in 140-character bursts. And it still doesn’t make money.
There is a bigger issue at play. I call it the liberation of the book. Digital technology has unshackled literature from the printed page where it has mainly reposed since the Chinese began putting it there in the 11th century. We lament the decline of books, bookstores and libraries as we have known them. But put the requiem aside for a moment to celebrate what has been gained—choice.
Personally, I don’t care for e-readers, so I don’t read e-books. But I’ve taken to audio books downloaded from the internet in a big way. They are much more portable than books on paper—or e-readers. I listen to them in the gym, on long car trips, while out for a walk or even just running errands. The performance of the reader can enhance an appreciation of the text—think of hearing Dickens or Ian Rankin with each character endowed with an appropriate accent.
I still buy books on paper, but hardly ever from mega bookstores like Chapters/Indigo. I buy online, but I don’t care for Amazon, the Walmart of digital technology. I prefer to buy from sites like AbeBooks, which aggregates booksellers from across the English-speaking world and sells their books, used and often new. (And I still love buying and trading books at The Word.)
You get the picture. You can tailor your reading habits according to your needs and desires. The same holds true these days for music and video (let’s not say TV or movies anymore). In this new digital world, not so much is lost—heck, even vinyl has made a comeback and radio is still with us—but much is gained. The proliferation of choice has created a richer environment, even if it hasn’t yet made writers and performers richer. Not every new thing will survive. But I’m glad Bob Stein is offering me social reading, whether I take to it or not.
Bryan Demchinsky is a Montreal editor and writer. He is the author or co-author of four books and was formerly a senior editor at the Montreal Gazette.
Photo credits: Bryan Demchinsky (top); Gabor Szilasi (headshot)