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E-books, mutable text and the social climate of the once solitary reader

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Chuck Twardy

The primary objection to e-readers springs from the fetishism of the physical. Surely you’ve heard the Must Clutch a Bound-Paper Artifact as I Curl Up Beside a Fire grievance.

Prepare for new categories of complaint. The tablet enables its owner to synchronize reading with social media engagement. You can tweet the protagonist’s exploits just like you chronicle red carpet arrivals at the Oscars or momentum shifts in a playoff game. Marginalia go real-time:

“WTF, in Chap 2 said opposite!”

“Totally! Wait till U read Chap 6!”

But reading is supposed to be a solitary activity, the last sanctuary of the interior mind, right? Not anymore, if it ever really was. “Reading and writing have always been social,” notes Bob Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book, in a recent interview. “Authors read the work of others and discuss their ideas with colleagues; readers talk to each other about what they’ve read,”

Stein’s think tank and its “if:book” blog are two among many initiatives tracking how digital culture is transforming the book. For the most part, as with much technology, the e-reader extends what we’ve long done with the analog antecedent. But the tablet book also opens new possibilities for both reader and author. As author Nicholas Carr points out in The Wall Street Journal, Gutenberg’s moveable type made the book “immutable.” And the need to produce multiples of a fixed object compelled excellence. Authors, editors and publishers labored to make a printed book as near perfect, and permanent, as possible. But digital text can be altered endlessly.

“As electronic books push paper ones aside, movable type seems fated to be replaced by movable text,” Carr observes. The advantages are obvious. You need not wait for a new edition to correct a mistake, or to add new developments. But Carr argues that school boards might alter textbooks to suit their politics. Dictators will scrub texts of ideas they hate. And publishers will use feedback data to tailor books (even more) to profitable low-brow tastes.

These are legitimate concerns. But digital texts also herald new types of creativity. Copyright law will need to adapt to readers’ mash-up appropriations. Grammar and usage, always shifting anyway, might become obsolete obsessions. Arguably, the market, or something like it, will set new standards. Anyway, mutable text is an idea to embrace, not to fear.

Check back next month to see if I’ve changed my mind.

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