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Jul. 18 2010 - 1:35 pm | 275 views | 0 recommendations | 13 comments

The LA Times looks (but not deeply) into the future of reading

Part 1 of the Los Angeles Times’ series on “The Future of Reading” starts with the kind of color feature editors are crazy for: A bright, precocious 12-year-old who’s been awakened to the wonders of science via new technology. If only the writers, Alex Pham and David Sarno, had been as inquisitive as little Emma Teitgen. Because once past the opening the story devolves into a credulous thumbsucker about how e-books “establish an entirely new kind of relationship with readers.”

That much is undeniably true. But it’s also as deep an insight as Pham and Sarno make an effort to mine. They seem to have zero interest in pondering what this sort of shift means, at least when it comes to fiction. They talk to young adult author Scott Westerfeld…

“There’s an ongoing feedback loop with my readers,” said Westerfeld, 47, who splits his time between New York and Australia. He figures he’s logged more than 30,000 e-mails from readers over the years. “They educate me a lot about the way they are reading. I’m a lot smarter about it now than when I was locked up in a room writing on my own.” He learned, for example, that writing about conflict can unsettle his younger readers. ”When two characters in my book have an argument, I get a lot of e-mail,” Westerfeld said. “Adults see it as churn. But kids are far more affected by it, so I use it only when there is a real need in the story for conflict.”

…without ever suggesting that an author who tames his narrative because it may be upsetting to readers, even younger ones, is a hack. I mean, does this guy really need a focus group to tell him that he should only use conflict, or anything else, when there’s a need for it? Pham and Sarno are similarly too easy on Shannon Reinbold-Gee, pen name Shannon Delany (I guess “Reinbold-Gee” was too unsettling for her younger readers), who

frequently asked readers to help her make decisions about plot and character twists in “13 to Life.” At the end of Chapter 6, she asked which beau her main character, Jessica, ought to go to the prom with. Fans voted for Jessica to go stag — and that’s how Reinbold-Gee wrote it.

Interactivity is one of the Grails of e-books, and it’s true that a book that helps readers — especially young ones — connect to outside source materials or even other readers is a better book. It’s shame, though, that Pham and Sarno didn’t tamp down some of their enthusiasm for the gee-whizziness of e-books and apply a little skepticism, especially as it relates to creative works. Authors can and will crowdsource the creative process. That genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not all bad. But to not even acknowledge the solitary author making the lonely aesthetic choices that best serve the story — that doesn’t serve writers or readers any better here in the future than it did in the past.


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  1. collapse expand

    “I mean, does this guy really need a focus group to tell him that he should only use conflict, or anything else, when there’s a need for it?”

    Because there’s never been such a thing as author fan clubs and writing letters to your favorite book author! Oh, wait…

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      Yeah, except that’s not what I’m talking about. There’s a big difference between being in touch with your readers and letting them decide what you write.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        I’m saying, I don’t see how giving your loyal audience more of what they want is a bad (or new) concept. There isn’t a difference between being in touch with readers and letting them have some input in how the entertainment you give them is shaped.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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          This idea has been around for a long time. An English Lit. professor once told me that Dickens (who released lots of his books as weekly or monthly publications) would change plot lines to satisfy the tastes of the masses. Although I can’t find much reference to it just now, except perhaps the death of Nell in “The Old Curiosity Shop.”

          These new tools offer more chances for hacks to remain popular; arguably to the detriment of modern literature as a whole. But at the same time I think many, many authors will want to avoid pandering this way specifically because of the stigma that will be attached to it. I would definitely read books that are true to the author’s intent rather than crowdsourced choose your own ending novels.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    well said, Bill. the entire LAT piece was in my opinion silly and naive. Why? Because future MRI brain scans which are being done even now at UCLA and Tufts and in Norway will indicate, as I have hunched, that reading on screens in inferior to reading on paper in terms of processing of info, retention of info and analysis of info. Until we see the MRI scan tests that people like Gary Small and Maryanne Wolf and Anne Mangen are doing, about reading versus screening (my word for reading on a screen), we must proceed slowly. Stick with books and newspapers, friends. This tech train might be out of the station, as Dr Small says, but we must watch it carefully. If we go all gaga over it like teenage gadgetheads, our fate might be, drum roll, “frankenbooks”. Is that what we want?

  3. collapse expand

    There was so much that was wrong with the Pham Sarno piece. It read more like a PR press release from the e reader industry that a real news report. But I feel that the quote at the end by Dr Gary Small at UCLA that even though this new tech stuff on the screens for those who like to screen instead of read on paper, that even though this tech stuff is cool on the one hand but also needs to be questioned on the other, especially in terms of Danny Bloom’s hunch that MRI scans will soon show that reading off screens in inferior to reading on paper in terms of processing, retention and analysis (in other words, in terms of IQ and EQ combined), way inferior, that even still, as Small says, “the tech train is already out of the station and it cannot be stopped.” Aint that the truth, Bill!

  4. collapse expand

    And Bill, in conjunction with this Times piece, Kevin Kelly the tech guru maverick wired guy who like you does not reply to his emails unless they are from VIPS, sigh, Kelly has a good (read: bad!) piece in the current August 2010 Smithsonian mag celebrating its 40th anniversary as a print mag and asking 40 gurus to pen articles about the next 40 years, in terms of how they see the future, and KK’s piece is titled “Reading in a Whole New Way” (I guess a take off on the Whole Earth Catalog meme) and subtitled “As digital screens proliferate and people move from print to pixel, how will the act of reading change?” KK calls it “screen-reading” borrowing the term from correspondence with me last year, since I got the word from Dr Minsky the AI guy at MIT, and KK almost went so far as to call screen-reading as “screening” (my coinage) but he stopped before typing it out. I use screening in order to differentiate real reading, which is one paper, to screening, which is done on screens, and is way cool, sure, but it is NOT reading, friends, listen to me. As if anyone’s going to listen to an eccentric goofball in a cave in southern Taiwan without a PHD or a leg to stand on. Maybe Bill will?

  5. collapse expand

    Bill, three final letters: MRI. It is all going to come down to MRI brain scan tests on lab participants who will be tested for reading on paper vs reading on screens and my hunch that different parts of the brain light up for reading on paper, DEEP DEEP REGIONS of thought and contemplation, compared to when we ”read” on screens, NOT SO DEEP regions of the brain, and do we want a future that is defined my superficial “reading” on screens or deep immersive reading of books, magazines and newspapers on paper, where true THOUGHT happens. That’s the future: MRI. Three letters. Once the MRI scans are done on real people in a lab setting, we can get rid of all this anecdotal evidence and see the facts. The facts, Bill, will prove that if we delete paper reading from our lives, say by 2025 or sooner, then we might as well kiss civilization as we know it goodbye. I mean it. That’s how serious I am. Amusing ourselves to death? Remember that? It will be distracting ourselves to distraction, and life will go on, sure, but at a very low level of intellectual thought. Groovy sure. But not a pretty picture, unless it’s a sequel to Tom Cruise’s role in Minority Report. Ouch.

  6. collapse expand

    And Bill, I live just down the street from E Ink Holdings, the Taiwanese firm that now owns E Ink in Cambridge, CEO Scott Liu bought E Ink last year and he now controls it, and E Ink makes the “vizplex” “ink” that runs 90 percent of the e-readers in the world! Really! I can smell the e ink boiling in the huge factory tanks at night, the aroma is all over town. Sure, Taiwan will get rich off E Ink, and sure Jeff Bezos will get rich off Kindling, but is this good for civilization? The thing is, the gadgetheads have taken over, from David Pogue, nice guy, at the NY Times, to these chaps Sarno and Pham at the LA Times. They’ll praise anything that techs. They’ve already crossed over. They’re gone now. But ou sont les nieges d’antan, Bill, that’s me question.

  7. collapse expand

    And one more thing, Bill, re the anthora coffee cup allegedly designed by Leslie Buck. In fact, he did not design it, you got taken by Margalit Fox’s front page Times obit. I have the smoking gun. Buck was a nice man, a true gentleman and sharp dresser, but he did not design or name the anthora (sic) cup, as you incorrectly reported at UffPo.

  8. collapse expand

    Bill? Do you reply? Or is your life just a one way street? SMILE

  9. collapse expand

    I see. Bill is on a one way street named Bill Barol Street and all others be damned. Sad.

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    About Me

    I'm a writer in Santa Monica, CA. I spent some years at Newsweek and some more writing for TV. My freelance journalism has appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Slate, The Boston Globe, Fast Company, Fortune Small Business, Washington Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, American Heritage and TV Guide, and on PBS.

    I've been writing about popular culture for more than 20 years, and about technology for almost that long. I've been fascinated the last few years with the way the two have started to intertwine, so that's what I'll be looking at here: Technology, pop culture and the places where they meet. I'll also be poking around in the world of blogging, microblogging, nanoblogging, micronanoblogging and whatever comes next.

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