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This post is part of “How We Will Read,” an interview series exploring the future of books from the perspectives of publishers, writers, and intellectuals. Read our kickoff post with Steven Johnson here. And check out our new homepage, a captivating new way to explore Findings.
This week we were extraordinarily lucky to get some of the precious time of Maria Popova, the Internet’s most awesome curator. Maria is best known for her site Brainpickings, in which she and her co-curators find the most interesting stuff on the web, consistently — typically, what is the most beautiful, inspiring, and poignant. Maria, unlike many of the rest of us, approaches the vastness of the web with a sense of wonder that is infectious. Her work always communicates the passionate belief that the connectedness and openness of the Internet can foster creativity, curiosity, innovation, and growth. We all adore Maria and were thrilled she could talk to us — because in addition to her extraordinary insight on creativity, she also loves reading, and had much to say not just on what books are, but also on what books ought to be.
How do you do most of your reading and annotating these days?
I prefer digital — Kindle on iPad is my weapon of choice. (Despite its many design and usability flaws, which are the subject of another conversation.) I’m an active marginalian and like being able to switch between my reading and Evernote, where I save quotes from and notes on the reading material in question. I also read a fair amount of longform on Instapaper, mostly at the gym during my morning workout. It’s safe to say I only ever use the iPad for Instapaper, Evernote, and Kindle. In fact, reading is the sole reason I got one.
That said, I read a lot of old books, most of which are not available on Kindle. Because I didn’t grow up in the U.S. and only moved here for college, I’ve always felt like I have this vast literary debt. I try to do an old book for every “new” book I get. And because most of my reading springs from the wonderful mesh of allusions and references of which literature is woven, this creates an interesting bipolar rabbit hole of past and present driving my discoveries and decisions on what to read next. It’s a beautiful process of controlled serendipity, but it can also get very overwhelming.
Because I’m a writer as much as a reader, I often take notes with the awareness that I’ll be writing about what I’m reading. I think this changes the lens of reading significantly, and marginalia play an enormous part of that. As I mentioned, I save a lot of clips and quotes and notes, but that’s a surprisingly — or perhaps unsurprisingly — laborious task. On the one hand, when I’m reading on paper — which tends to be the case with all the vintage books I read — saving something to Evernote means manually transcribing it. I do that a shameful amount, sometimes transcribing entire pages I know I’ll need to refer to. I estimate I type anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 words a week just transcribing what I’m reading. (I eagerly await the day our technology is good enough to automatically and perfectly transcribe text you take a photo of. Until then, an intern would suffice.)
On the other hand, with digital, DRM regulations are making it extremely difficult, or purposely impossible, to export highlights. (This is partly why Findings makes my life easier.) Which means we’re either back to manual transcription or, my recent embarrassment of choice, taking a screenshot of the highlight on the Kindle iPad app, then emailing the photo to my Evernote email. Evernote has optical character recognition, so searching for a keyword will also fetch results from images of text, not just typed text.
How has reading become more social for you?
I have a friend who “skims” books by turning on the popular highlights feature in Kindle and only reading those. It works for her, but to me that’s the death of reading.
Reading is a bootcamp for developing and exercising critical thinking. Without that — intellectual apocalypse! And critical thinking is about developing a point of view, and all writing is — or, should be — about arguing a point of view, implicitly or explicitly. When you bring the crowd into the equation, this concept completely disappears — because a crowd cannot have a point of view, at least not one that is simultaneously focused and authentic to each individual in the crowd.
I don’t need a focus group of strangers to tell me what I should be reading or, more dangerously, how to read what I’m reading. Decision by committee doesn’t work in creative labor, and it certainly doesn’t work in intellectual labor.
Mortimer Aldler, in the wonderful How to Read a Book, says that marginalia are your private dialogue with the author, the intellectual tug-of-war that is really the greatest compliment you can pay an author. Being guided by other people’s marginalia is like letting a thousand voices into your head while trying to hold a challenging debate. Have those conversations, by all means, but do so over dinner or tea with people whom you respect and only after you have read the very thing you’re going to discuss and made up your mind about it.
"Listen, then make up your mind," Gay Talese famously said about the secret of writing. It’s only logical that this should be inverted when it comes to reading: “Make up your mind, then listen.”
That said, I find it intriguing to see what and how individual people I respect — as opposed to an amalgamated “crowd” — are reading. I subscribe to Steven’s findings via RSS, for instance, and have made it a game of trying to figure out what his next article or book will be based on what he’s reading. I often add those items to my own reading list — I think there’s nothing wrong with complementing your own literary diet and curiosity with discoveries from individual readers you respect.
How do you see reading evolving in the years to come?
One thing we absolutely must do — and I see no other way forward — is get away from the legacy models that underpin reading today.
Some of these have to do with the design of the reading experience. We still operate on the metaphor of the scroll. It’s baked into our interfaces and our language — we “scroll” screens and authors regularly refer to text “above” or “below.” Well, guess what, if I’m reading on an e-reader, what’s “below” for you might be “above” on the next page for me or “to the right” if I’m reading in a two-column view.
The other, and more pressing, legacy that needs to evolve is the basic funding and distribution model for books and other forms of writing. Ursula Nordstrom, the iconic children’s book publisher responsible for such classics as Goodnight Moon, Charlotte’s Web, and Where the Wild Things Are, once wrote an intelligently scathing letter about the state of children’s publishing, much of which I think still applies to book publishing today. She said decisions were being made by “mediocre ladies in influential positions” as to what to get published and how — and little of this has changed in the traditional publishing world. What’s being published, of course, impacts what is being read. Mediocrity breeds mediocrity and, worse yet, it breeds a certain anosognosia about its own mediocrity, both in the reader and in the writer.
Platforms like The Atavist and Byliner, among others, are giving me hope that brilliant people are carving out influential positions from which to publish equally brilliant writing without the burdens of the old world.
The monetization model of online publishing — a legacy model that hasn’t changed since the golden age of newspapers — is breeding even more mediocre and questionable content. Because this model puts the advertiser, not the reader, first, we suffer the same atrocities a newspaper editor lamented in 1923 when he bemoaned the way in which the circulation manager had taken over the newspaper and eclipsed the editor. As long as the ad-supported pageview remains the main currency of funding writing online, we’ll continue getting slideshows about kittens, HuffPost-ified sensationalist headlines, one-page articles artificially split into five pages, and other such assaults on the reader. To have intelligent readers, we need intelligent writers, certainly, but also intelligent publishing. I hope to see this ecosystem evolve towards a meritocracy, where content gets published because it is good, and because readers find value in it and are willing to put a price on this value. Reading is voting for writing, and I hope to see our votes count for more than they currently do.
How about books? Can books be remixed?
In the middle ages, there were these manuscripts called florilegia — the word, florilegium, came from the Latin for “flower” and “gather.” They were essentially mashups, or compilations, of writings from other texts that an author would cut and paste together to better illustrate a specific idea, perform a meta-anlysis of a topic, or deliver an opinion. These are among the earliest recorded examples of remix culture. More importantly, they’re the oldest-known form of curation as authorship — these florilegia were among the most lavish and expensive books to produce at the time. So, clearly, we used to place great value on this kind of authorship. Which is to say, these conversations we’re having today aren’t new or a matter of evolution. If they’re making anything evolve, it’s our understanding of what a “book” is.
Kevin Kelly once predicted:
Over the next century, scholars and fans, aided by computational algorithms, will knit together the books of the world into a single networked literature. A reader will be able to generate a social graph of an idea, or a timeline of a concept, or a networked map of influence for any notion in the library. We’ll come to understand that no work, no idea, stands alone, but that all good, true and beautiful things are networks, ecosystems of intertwingled parts, related entities and similar works.
I love this notion of mapping out influences, building an information genome of sorts. (It’s certainly an aspiration at the heart of The Curators Code, a project I recently launched to try and codify attribution of discovery.) Authors, of course, have been doing this for as long as there’s been writing — borrowing, appropriating, and reacting to the ideas of others. We’ve just never had a formal framework in place for tracing that — and now we’re getting closer to having the technologies, and more importantly the cultural ethos of remix as a form of creation, to do that. I would love to be able to see how an author’s ideas evolved, where they originated even. In a way, that’s what I get when I subscribe to Steven’s findings — a trail map for his creative process. I think books have the capacity to move closer to that, and I certainly hope we muster the willingness to do take them there.
Lastly, why books?
I don’t know, why books? A rose is a rose is a rose. Reading is reading, whatever the medium.
I do think, however, that books have one unique characteristic that remains important to preserve. They’re packaged points of view. As such, they differ from the purpose — and the accountabilities — of, say, a magazine article or news report. Take, for instance, Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. It has drawn some well-argued criticism against Jonah’s scientific rigor in the studies he cites, and how he cites them, pitting the book against Jonah’s typically rigorous magazine science writing. But there’s a crucial difference — his magazine articles are designed to report on scientific studies and draw some (very cautious) interpretations, mostly once already offered by the researchers. His book, on the other hand, is a point of view on how he, as an author and a thinker, believes creativity works, selectively using the research of others to support his hypothesis.
Books can do that, and do do that, and should do that. It’s partly the author’s job to have transparency about the difference between point of view and hard evidence, and partly the reader’s to discern between the two. (Jonah does precisely that in the introduction, where he is careful to point out that the study of “creativity” is so nascent and our understanding of the brain so incomplete that any discussion inevitably rests more on speculative theories and interpretation than on hard empirical evidence — a fair disclaimer, and one fully appropriate for a book that’s essentially an encapsulated point of view.)
Another reason books should continue to exist: We’ve heard so much about how the digital age is deteriorating our capacity for sustained attention in digesting information. Whether or not this is actually true remains to be seen. (For a line between opinion and hard evidence far less gracefully walked than Jonah’s see Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows.) But I’d argue that this kind of attention has suffered an even more dangerous decline in producing quality information than in consuming it.
There’s a real newsification epidemic going on in publishing, where every news event sends legions of writers rushing to squeeze out an article and piggyback on the trend, no matter how far-fetched the story connection. (A quick glance at my inbox over the past week reveals dozens of pitches related to the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, for instance, spanning everything from fashion critiques to restaurant menus to iPad apps to books about pets on the ship.) We live in a kind of opinion culture perpetuated by the media, in a society where the worst thing is not having an opinion. This unleashes an enormous amount of journalistic laziness and hastiness in everything from fact-checking to the very language of storytelling, driven by writers’ constant race to beat each other to punch.
But guess what — newsflash! — there is no punch when it comes to good writing, and those throwing the punches are hardly the ones with the most intelligent opinions and most considered convictions anyway.
Books, with their inherent pace and timescale, invite — force, one might say — writers to step back from that haste and reflect more deeply on what is being written, research it more thoroughly, deliver it more eloquently, argue it with better-substantiated conviction. Though books have a long history of being proclaimed dead, I trust they will endure, in one form or another — it’s simply too important to preserve that mode of arguing ideas, if only for this “sacred pause” it engenders and necessitates.
(Interview conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)