Readers Are Fundamental

What else would you call someone who reads?

November 14, 2011


I was all set to wax rhapsodic here about my iPad, how much I’m enjoying my new toy (and it is a toy, I know), how quickly I got to the point of loving the “app” idea for its convenience and speed, how interesting it is that I’ve started to begrudge using the web at times, and how hard it is to find apps I might like without knowing what I am looking for in the Apple App Store (which is a classic search/recommendation problem).

Events, however, piled on top of one another and subverted my plans. First, I saw the fascinating results of a poll on Stephen’s Lighthouse (Stephen Abram’s must-read blog), where he asked what we should call people who read the e-versions of books. A dramatically split decision, with respondents favoring “digital readers,” “e-readers,” “ebook readers,” “mobile readers,” and several other more exotic options. (“Nonprint readers”? Seriously?) The intriguing aspect for me was not the specific responses so much as their wide variety without a clear consensus, from which I infer we haven’t figured this out yet.

Then came word of the untimely death of Michael Hart, the founder and driving force of Project Gutenberg (and of course, of Steve Jobs, who I wrote about here). For 40 years—yes, 40 years—Michael worked tirelessly to make digital versions of books freely available online, often one keystroke at a time. Michael was many things—fanatically absorbed in his work and his cause, a provocateur, and sometimes, to be honest, a pain in the ass. His passing is a sadness, his voice will be missed, and the ideas he pushed will no doubt live for generations to come.

And then, like a thunderclap, we heard the news of the lawsuit pitting what appears to be every author in the world against the Google libraries and the HathiTrust for copyright violation. I didn’t see this coming; in fact, in preparing for my course this fall in which we discuss the evolution of the book, I had largely put aside the Google Books litigation sideshow because nothing was happening. Oops.

The common thread here is reading, and how we define it. I wouldn’t even say “redefinition” because innovations have come and gone, from the second-century codex to medieval word separation and silent reading, right up to today, and reading follows quite naturally and seamlessly along. Only a generation ago, audiobooks weren’t always regarded as reading, per se, and even today, graphic novels raise a few eyebrows among those who don’t consider the format “serious” reading.

Stephen’s poll, intentionally or not, didn’t include one obvious option: “readers.” His blog’s (ahem) readers stepped right up and plugged it in as a write-in candidate, and several commenters followed suit. For my money, this is the only viable name for the consumption of written words; all the others come across as clumsy and already dated.

Can we all just spare one another the endless discussion and get on with the important stuff? Authors and publishers already get it: The ways in which stories are displayed come and go; what matters is the story and the storytelling. (And the royalties and rights management, apparently.)

I believe that what many saw as Michael’s lack of tolerance of people who didn’t share his ideas or points of view was actually a display of his impatience with delays in what he saw so clearly as the necessary work to be done. Everyone involved can agree that while the parade of technologies never ends and in fact accelerates, the power of the stories and the ideas behind them will never ebb . . . but that’s yet another story.

JOSEPH JANES is associate professor at the Information School of the University of Washington.



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