This post is part of “How We Will Read,” a Findings interview series exploring the future of books from the perspectives of publishers, writers, and intellectuals. Read our kickoff post with Steven Johnson here.
This week we sat down with Clive Thompson, contributing writer for WIRED and the New York Times Magazine, perennial blogger, and maybe the most energetic person to ever grace our offices. Enthusiastic and hilarious, Clive is actually bursting with ideas about what the future looks like — and what seem like insane ideas or improbable projections are often backed up by a surprising amount of on-the-fly statistical citations. Clive has done his homework, it seems, for every subject on the planet. In our conversation, he seemed to effortlessly switch gears from publishing to literacy, to education, to demographics, and then on to networked societies and television shows.
Clive is currently working on his first book, about the future of thought in the age of machines. He is a prolific Tweeter and Instagrammer, and you can also find him at his blog, Collision Detection. He’s written about the future of reading before, here and here. Below, he explores some of his ideas for where he think the written word is heading. His conclusions? In the future, we might be “ass-deep in books,” and he’ll need a T-shirt that says, “Piss off, I’m reading War and Peace on my iPhone!”
How do you do most of your reading these days?
I do about half in print and half on various screens. I ended up reading all of War and Peace on my iPhone. I have Stanza, which is this app that lets you download books directly from the Gutenberg project. It turned out the iPhone was a really great way to read longform fiction. I found the idea of approaching a very big book less intimidating because you only approach it page-by-page.
How do you annotate, and why?
I annotate aggressively. If I’m reading a piece of really long fiction, I often find that there are these fabulous things I want to remember. I want to take notes on it, so I highlight it, and if I have a thought about it, I’ll type it out quickly. Then I dump all these clippings into a format that I can look at later. In the case of War and Peace, I actually had 16,000 words worth of notes and clippings at the end of it. So I printed it out as a print-on-demand book. In short, I have a physical copy of all of my favorite parts of War and Peace that I can flip through, with my notes, but I don’t actually own a physical copy of War and Peace.
Why are you taking notes? What are you doing with that stuff?
If you look at the memory athletics competitions, where the memory athletes are given something written and they have to repeat it, they’re really good at lists of random information, they’re really good at information about people — and they hate the poetry event. It’s almost impossible to listen to a poem once, to read it once, and then remember it. There’s something about literature that’s just too complex. What does work for remembering literature is repeating. That’s why I like having these little printed books, or these little files of my notes, because I can literally pull up anything I want to remember from Moby Dick, and in repeating it, remember it. Annotating becomes a way to re-encounter things I’ve read for pleasure.
We forget most of what we read, right? The only way to fight that is to write it down, and consult it. So I frequently will almost randomly pick up an old book and look at my notes, because it refreshes you as to what you find interesting about that book. Recently I re-looked at a book and I was delighted to discover that even though I’d read the book 22 years ago, I’d highlighted a bunch of stuff and written notes to myself, and some of the things I remembered about the book were things that I’d highlighted and written about. It was proof that the act of highlighting and thinking about it and writing that little note does that little extra of cognitive work that means you’re more likely to remember something about the book. This is called the generation effect — when you generate something yourself, you’re more likely to remember it. This is one of the wonderful things for me about a world in which people are writing in books and talking about them more: This fantastic generation effect means we’re going to internalize and remember and understand more deeply the books that we’re reading.
It sounds like you’re having a conversation with the text, and maybe also with your future self.
Yeah. It’s a conversation with the author, with yourself, and in a weird way, if you take it along as a lifelong project, you are having a conversation with your future self.
Is the end game of writing creating these conversations?
Yes, absolutely. Whether it’s internal conversation in your head or socially. I’ve always regarded the endpoint of my writing to get people talking to me, to each other, to themselves about this stuff.
I actually strongly believe that social sharing of this marginalia is going to unlock unbelievable amounts of conversation. But I’m embarrassed at the quality of a lot of my notes — they’ll literally be me going like “hahaha” or “lol.” I look like a 12-year-old. But I’m assured that when you import them into Findings, they’re all private. So I’m going to import them, because I love going through Findings and seeing what people have clipped.