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Reading. It’s a simple act. You’re doing it right now. You probably read something off of billboards, screens, and packages hundreds of times throughout the course of a single day. Can something so fundamental really be changing?
Here at Findings, we believe it is. We engage in conversations with our users every day about what they need to fill in the gap between their reading experience and what they imagine it could be. Reading in a digital age gives us both more tools and more distractions to contend with.
We wanted to start asking authors, publishers, and thinkers we knew: How do you read now? And how is it going to change? In that vein we want to welcome you to “How We Will Read,” a series of conversations about social reading, digital media, and annotation with literary minds like Clay Shirky, Maud Newton, Laura Miller, and Richard Nash. We’re excited to get inside the reading process of some of our favorite writers — and to share their thoughts with you.
We’re very happy to kick off “How We Will Read” with author Steven Johnson, who’s been an adviser to Findings since day one. His most recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, explores what kinds of environments foster intellectual breakthroughs. Looking through Steven’s Findings page or Twitter account is a romp through genres and inspirations — you’ll find tech news, political analysis, and cultural critique, from Dickens to the Federalist Papers. Broad-base innovation is at the core of Steven’s thinking. So we asked him: Where does reading need to innovate?
How do you do most of your reading these days?
Wherever possible, I read books using the Kindle app on the iPad. But I do a lot of reading of articles, essays, blog posts, and Wikipedia in the browser. (Usually Firefox on the Mac, though sometimes Safari on the iPad.) I know it is supposed to be on the decline, but I do more loosely-directed surfing than ever: I head off in one general direction, and start following the links, which usually end up taking me somewhere completely unplanned. (I wrote a little case study of how this works here.) But it’s not the classical web surfing, where you just click on one link after another; it’s more staggered that that, and it often involves social media. So someone will link to an interesting article on Twitter, and I’ll go read it, and it’ll mention some musician I’ve never heard of, so I’ll Google his name, and read the Wikipedia entry, which will send me to a Pitchfork article, which will send me off to a new Google query about some sub-genre of music I’ve never heard of, which will lead me to a book I download for Kindle. Repeat, ad nauseum.
If you could move one feature of paper books to digital books, what would that be?
Skimming. It’s a funny thing with print vs. ebooks; the digital age is supposed to be all about attention deficit disorder and hypertextual distractions, but ebooks lock you into reading them in a linear fashion more than print books do. It’s much easier to pick up a print book and flip through the pages, get a sense of the argument or structure, than it is with an ebook (or magazine.) It’s a very interesting interface challenge: I think it’s probably solvable, and I know many smart folks are working on it, but we don’t have a true solution yet.
Can you recall the moment you fell in love with reading?
I have been a reader for as long as I can remember. I would just lock into books and sit there on the couch with them for hours. When I was in second grade, I remember being obsessed with the Great Brain series, which we just tracked down on Amazon and read with our older boys this fall. They loved them as well, which was 1) pretty surprising, since they’re all about life in a small town in Utah in the 1890s, and 2) incredibly gratifying to see as a parent.
Has reading become more social for you?
My article/essay/blog post reading has become intensely social. I think easily more than half of the articles I read in the average day come from passed links on Twitter. Those social recommendations are a tremendous source of serendipity, much more interesting and unpredictable than they are given credit for. It’s not just an echo chamber of predictable fare from a close circle of friends, partially because I follow a lot of people from different fields who are not personal friends: musicians and political writers and food writers and movie critics, etc. And also because they’re often retweeting interesting links from people I’ve never even heard of. This is not a new idea: it’s the strength of weak ties argument essentially. But I’m surprised that people still underestimate the power of those weak ties in terms of making surprising and rich new connections.
Do you often annotate what you’re reading? Why? How has this changed over time, with the advent of new technology?
I used to read print books with a pen — assuming it was work-related, and not a beach read — and would highlight passages and scribble short comments in the margins. And then I would go through these elaborate steps to convert the text into digital form so I could store and search it later, with comments. Now Findings has taken almost all the labor out of the capturing process, but interestingly I have stopped making comments in the margins, even though technically you can do with the Kindle and with Findings. I just select and store the text, and assume I’ll figure out why I selected it later on. I’m not exactly sure why that happened with the shift to screen reading. I may need to restore my annotation habit.
How do you see reading evolving in the years to come?
Probably the biggest change is going to come from the changed definition of what we’re reading. More and more, texts will evolve the way Wikipedia entries evolve; the idea of a finished text, where all the words have been locked down, will start to seem a little less orthodox—something you’d expect from a novel, but not from a magazine article, say. And that open-endedness will likely mean that the reader is capable of participating, adding links, commenting, suggesting new avenues for exploration, fact-checking. So we’ll have to read in an even more focused way, I suspect, knowing that we can have a say in where the text eventually goes. So there you go: ebooks and digital text are keeping us from skimming *and* forcing us to engage with the text more directly. Who would have thought it?