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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.
Every form of media has migrated online and benefited from conversation. The newspaper is broken into articles that get blogged and get turned into conversations. We’re at the point where the most interesting thing you can find on the Internet is the conversation in the comments on a blog after someone excerpts an article. I will read an article in the Times in paper, because I’m old-fashioned, and then I will go online to see what people blogged about it. It’s happening with newspapers, but it has yet to happen with books. But books are going to provoke the best conversations because people think really deeply about them. And people bring a certain level of intellectual seriousness to them that they don’t even necessarily bring to newspapers.
I am absolutely convinced that being able to see what other people have said about a book and to talk about it and respond to it is going to be a freakishly huge boon for books. If you think about it, so much of how people who love books have dealt with their love is by trying to put together social environments where people can talk about books, like book clubs. Universities are essentially institutions designed to let people talk about books. We do this over and over and over again.
How social is reading for you right now?
It’s extremely social, in part because I grab every tool possible in order to make it so. If I’m reading something, I talk about it on Twitter to see what people say about it. I haven’t been blogging while writing my book because I don’t have the time for it, but for the past eight years, if I was reading something, I would blog about it and get a conversation happening that way. I’ll talk about it with my wife, I’ll talk about it with people face-to-face who I run into. I’ve done everything I can, as most people who really dig books do, to create conversations around what we read.
I’m almost trembling with excitement, because I foresee this point when we surmount some of these design challenges and we’ll be able to have different ways of reading a book. You’ll have a digital book, and if you want, you’ll turn off all the comments, read in solitude — “everyone shut up” — or you can say, show me the most awesome comments, show me the highest-rated comments, show me everything, show me the firehose. What have my friends or people I care about said about this book? Are there any actual people reading this page right now that I might want to have a live conversation with about it? There’s so much fun someone could have with these layers, ranging from classic, total isolation to like rollicking bar-party conversation.
I’ve had this idea to write a provocative piece, or hire someone to write it, and print it on-demand it with huge margins, and then send it around to four people with four different pens — red, blue, green and black. It comes back with four sets of comments all on top of the text. Then I rip it all apart and make it into an e-book. We’re coming back to old forms of conversation in books that have always existed — illuminated manuscripts had huge margins so monks could write their notes to each other and to posterity.
As I said, I’m reading War and Peace on my iPhone. But you can’t tell I’m reading War and Peace on my iPhone. When I take my kids to the park and they’re off playing while I’m reading War and Peace, I look like just some fatuous idiot reading his email. I almost went to CafePress and designed a T-shirt that said, “Piss off, I’m reading War and Peace on my iPhone.” Clearly we need some signaling mechanisms. I can easily imagine an app that broadcasts what book you’re reading and what page you’re on to anyone who cares. Think about how much fun that would be on the subway. There’s all these forms of hilarious and delightful discovery we could have with digital devices.
I feel like we see all these articles that say, “This is what the e-book is,” and my response is always, “We have no idea what the e-book is like!” All these design things have yet to be solved and even thought about, and we have history of being really really good at figuring this out. If you think about the origins of the codex — first we started reading on scrolls. Scrolls just pile up, though. You can’t really organize them. Codexes made it easier to line them up on a shelf. But it also meant there were pages. It didn’t occur to them for some time to have page numbers, because the whole idea was that you only read a small number of books and you were going to read them over and over and over again. Once there were so many books that you were going to read a book once and maybe never again, it actually became important to consult the book and be able to find something inside it. So page numbers and indices became important. We look at books and we’re like, “They’re so well designed,” but it took centuries for them to become well-designed. So you look at e-books, and yeah, they’re alright, but they’re clearly horrible compared to what they’re going to be. I find it amazing that I can get this much pleasure out of them already.
So do you think print is going anywhere?
No. I think print will remain around but will become much weirder. This reminds me of people talking about the paperless office in the 1980s. Computers came along, and everyone said, “Oh wow, we can just send documents to one another, so — paperless office.” Well, what actually happened is that paper use exploded — for a couple reasons. One is that when word processing made it possible to create more attractive documents, more people did it. Basic principle of behavioral economics: If you make something easier to do, more people will do more of it. And people wanted to print out emails. And paper is this proven technology for doing types of thinking that are fantastic. You can make swoopy little lines with a pencil, you don’t need electricity, you can hand them from one person to another, you can get them wet and it doesn’t matter, several people can crowd around it. Paper is fantastic technology. So every firm that adopted paper had a 40 percent increase in paper use. That was the paperless office.
I see similar things in printing books. Print-on-demand machines have gone from being ridiculously expensive to the point where it’ll one day sit on your desk. Right now they’re about $100,000. In like 10 years, you’re going to be able to print a good-looking softcover at home. And things get really weird then. In the same way they got weird when you gave everyone word processing and then you gave them cheap printers and then you gave them Photoshop and design tools that were free. What you see with print on demand in the last couple of years is that there’s been explosion in the number of things printed, but they’re printed in small quantities: three, four, five copies total. They tend to be things like very specialty books; weird memoirs only three or four people want to read; mementos: people put together photographs of their vacation with a little writeup. You get books that get updated in curious new ways. The University of Calgary hosted the former prime minister of Canada, Kim Campbell, and offered to sell copies of her book at her event. But her book was out of print. So she got the digital file, wrote two new chapters, a new introduction, and they printed 50 copies of it for the event.
I think the mass books, the one where you sell 2 million copies, will go digital. Print-on-demand is going to cause this explosion of weird interesting experiments in print that were never before possible because you could only think of books that were going to sell to 10,000 people. There will always be a boutique market for things you only do in print or only want to see in print. Sometimes I worry the opposite — people worry books are going to go away, and I worry we’re going to be ass-deep in them.
But maybe we won’t make any money on them?
Well, think of it this way. Right now Amazon’s advantage with print books is that they have a massive backlog they can deliver more quickly. And with the e-book they can deliver it instantly. But what if your local bookstore, or hell, your local drugstore, had a print-on-demand machine that cost $10,000, and you want the print book, and they say, “Oh yeah, come by in three minutes, it’ll be ready.” Suddenly Amazon’s print advantage goes absolutely away. And this is in fact what’s happening on some university campuses. Make it even simpler — say it sits on your desk at home, and you say, hmm, I kind of want to read this book in print. You can have it in four minutes. People who say print is going away aren’t looking at what is happening to the technology of printing books. Digital technology doesn’t just make it easier to move bits; it often makes it easier to move atoms, too. We made it easy for anyone to design and print their own t-shirts, so everyone went out and designed and printed their own t-shirts, and we’re now ass-deep in t-shirts. To catastrophic results, ecologically. There’s massive environmental downsides to this, of course. But the idea of the print book going away, I just don’t think that’s true. It’s hard to predict how weird it’s going to get, but I don’t think it’s going to vanish.
The other thing that will also happen probably to books: E-ink is going to become so weirdly cheap that we can’t imagine how strange things might get. People talk about distractions online, and it’s because everyone’s being shoved onto one screen. You can forget something you have open because it’s buried under everything else. One of the reasons people like the Kindle is that it’s a single-purpose device, so you’re not tempted to check your email. I do think the problem of distractions on devices is real — because they are horribly designed. A desktop environment is just wretched. It’s an ergonomic catastrophe. If you look back at the early proponents of ubiquitous computing, they don’t talk about staring at one screen — they talk about screens lying around like papers lying around. And you’d use one and throw it away. They’d almost be disposable. When I first read this 10 years ago, I thought this was crazy. But now it’s like, “Oh yeah, maybe we’ll have screens that are actually like paper. We’ll use them like paper, and hand them out like flyers on the corner.” Who knows?
(All interviews are conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)