What will reading look like in 2010?

Paul Raven @ 31-12-2009

Well, it’s been a lively year for changes in the publishing industry, hasn’t it? This time last year, I wrote a post titled 2009 – the year the physical bookstore lays down and dies? – and over here in the UK, Borders has just gone into receivership, a few days before Amazon claimed to have sold more Kindle ebooks over the holiday period than dead-tree books. The times, they are a-changin’.

I still don’t have an ebook reader myself, because I’ve not seen one that’s open enough for my tastes – I don’t want to be tied to one retailer (same reason I don’t have an iPod), and I want to be able to read multiple formats without jumping through hoops. But 2010 looks like the year that the tablet computer makes its presence felt (if Apple are going to release one, you can bet your boots that cheaper and more open devices will follow close on its heels), and that means all we need is a decent platform for reading ebooks.

Enter inventor and Singularitarian Ray Kurzweil, who has a track record of disruptive developments in an assortment of industries; his new company knfb Reading Technology (a cooperative venture with the National Federation of the Blind) is set to debut an ebook software platform called Blio at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show next week. It’s already available for free download, with versions for PC, iPhone and iPod Touch, and (according to the linked article) it trumps pretty much all of the competition on features and accessibility. Blio may well turn out to be the grenade in the ebook punchbowl… I’m hoping an Android-native version appears pretty soon.

And what of the humble magazine? Distribution and print costs are killing off all but the most tenacious print publishing niches at a ferocious rate, but there’s plenty of people trying to find a new paradigm for the format – here’s a video demo of Mag+, the result of a collaboration between a Swedish publisher and BERG, the London-based design outfit [via MetaFilter]:

Of course, you may be thinking that all these developments are attempts to saddle a horse that has already fled the stable… after all, no-one reads any more, do they? Well, actually, they do – the consumption patterns and preferred media have changed rapidly, but a recent University of California study shows that the amount of text consumed by the average American has actually tripled since 1980, and social networks like Facebook have ordinary people writing more regularly than ever before (although the quality and nature of the material they write is admittedly pretty variable).

The one thing we can probably say for certain is that people are still going to be reading in 2010, and for a long time afterwards. The challenge for writers and publishers (of fiction or otherwise) are to find the channels that work best for the material they produce, and then to find a way to leverage that channel to make it a viable business model.

Interesting times ahead, don’t you think? 🙂

To teach the love of literature, let students choose their books

Paul Raven @ 03-09-2009

kids reading booksThere’s a lengthy article at the New York Times about middle-school English teacher Lorrie McNeill and her experiments in encouraging her students to engage with reading, and it’ll probably come as little surprise to many of you that she’s found that giving the kids (almost) free rein to pick their own titles has been much more successful than following the classics curriculum and force-feeding them Moby Dick and To Kill A Mockingbird:

The approach Ms. McNeill uses, in which students choose their own books, discuss them individually with their teacher and one another, and keep detailed journals about their reading, is part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is taught in America’s schools. While there is no clear consensus among English teachers, variations on the approach, known as reading workshop, are catching on.


… some previously staunch advocates of a rigid core curriculum have moderated their views. “I actually used to be a real hard-line, great-books, high-culture kind of person who would want to stick to Dickens,” said Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University and the author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.” But now, in the age of Game Boys and Facebook, “I think if they read a lot of Conan novels or Hardy Boys or Harry Potter or whatever, that’s good,” he said. “We just need to preserve book habits among the kids as much as we possibly can.”


… literacy specialists also say that instilling a habit is as important as creating a shared canon. “If what we’re trying to get to is, everybody has read Ethan Frome and Henry James and Shakespeare, then the challenge for the teacher is how do you make that stuff accessible and interesting enough that kids will stick with it,” said Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. “But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers, we don’t all read the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers, so kids should have some of the same freedom.”

This certainly chimes with my own experience of literature education when I was at school, and I come from a much more privileged background than McNeill’s students. We were made to read lots of classics (including To Kill A Mockingbird, which I remember as one of the most tedious books I ever had to open), and despite the fact that I’d been a keen reader from a very early age thanks to the encouragement of my parents, I honestly believe it was this teaching method that made me abandon English Lit as an education option at the earliest available opportunity. [image by <cleverCl@i®ê>]

Luckily, I never stopped reading (predominantly genre fiction, as should come as no surprise), but I wonder if I might have thought of becoming a writer much earlier in my life had the connection between books I loved and books considered “worthwhile” been made at that stage. Now I’m older, I read much more widely, and recent years have seen me exploring classic literature with a passion that could only have come from having learned for myself just how much pleasure reading a novel can bring (though, to my shame, I’ve still never gotten round to reapproaching To Kill A Mockingbird, which I suspect I’d appreciate far more now than as a callow and geeky 13-year-old).

What were your experiences of literature education at school? Did you lap up the classics, or did they bore you to tears? Do you think that it’s better to encourage kids to read “proper” literature, or just to encourage them to read, period?

The internet as a literacy revolution

Paul Raven @ 02-09-2009

One of the more perennial modern rants is the one that decries the internet (or computers in general, or modern popular culture, or text messaging) as the ultimate enemy of literacy, a corrosive reagent eroding our ability to use the written word effectively – we’ve mentioned it quite a few times before here at Futurismic, in fact.

Well, not everyone agrees with that assessment… and it turns out that research bears out the opposite conclusion. Clive Thompson takes the podium at Wired to discuss the research of Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing and rhetoric who is convinced that the internet is actually producing “a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization”:

From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.

[…] For Lunsford, technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.

It’s almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.

But is this explosion of prose good, on a technical level? Yes. Lunsford’s team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.

Of course, the question as to whether Ancient Greek traditions of rhetoric hold the same validity today as they did in the time of Plato and Aristotle is open to debate… but the Cambrian explosion in our production of text is inescapable. Perhaps the public nature of web content is actually a Darwinian force, developing our ability to communicate, discuss and debate to ever greater levels of rhetorical skill? [via SlashDot]

Well, everywhere apart from YouTube comment threads, I guess.

Young Adult fiction: are we confusing marketing with markets?

Paul Raven @ 22-06-2009

teenage readersJoanne McNeil of Tomorrow Museum has a post hailing teenagers as being the most enthusiastic readers of all, contrary to media handwringing over declining youth literacy. Her central point is very valid: that teenagers who get into books discover a channel through which they can learn a lot about the world (and the people in it) without having to refer to the usual authority figures. [image by jonfeinstein]

Young people, who learned T9 before long division, have no problem curling up with a good book. Sales of young adult lit remain high even in this economy. Why is it other than teenagers are the most passionate readers?

There are several reasons why so many teenagers are passionate readers. A book is a pathway inside another person’s head. When you are young, you have few deep relationships, maybe no real emotional connections with others at all. You connect in the text. At that age, it is a revelation to see an author has the same dreams and insecurities as you do. Plus, there is a confidence and conviction to a fiction narrative’s voice. You are eager for someone to look up to, but certainly not your parents, not your teachers. A novel is an opportunity to really listen to another human being.

The solitude, the sense of emotional connection, and the guidance of a novel are all appealing to teenagers who might otherwise busy themselves exclusively with videogames and the Internet. And it shows. For the most part, young adult sales continue to rise even while book publishing is experiencing a significant decline.

That certainly aligns with my teenaged experiences of reading, the utterly immersive thrill of which I’m increasingly unable to recapture (though it has been replaced with a different set of appreciations as time has passed).

But the other reason I’ve brought this up is that assumption in the last line of the quote from McNeil. Again:

… young adult sales continue to rise even while book publishing is experiencing a significant decline.

This is a mantra we heard over and over again during the massive YA genre fiction circle-jerk last year, and it’s always backed with the unvoiced assumption that only Young Adults read YA. I’ve worked in a library, and I can assure you that’s an observable falsehood; most genuinely popular YA is successful precisely because so many adult readers with an expendable income enjoy the same titles.

As much as I would love to believe otherwise, I don’t see the rising popularity of YA fiction as an indicator of increased interest in books specifically among the teen demographics (though neither do I think that things are as bad as the doom-sayers would have us believe); what it does indicate is that certain sorts of stories have a wider appeal than others.

How much of this is to do with ‘adult’ genre literature just not flicking the switches for those adult readers? I’m pretty sure that’s a large part of the explosive success of  the urban fantasy subgenre, in that it repackaged classic and familiar horror and fantasy tropes in a way that placed fun and entertainment above more ‘literary’ values. Maybe Jetse really is right; maybe in our hardnosed love for the genres we’re actually keeping them from becoming more accessible, and hence more popular?

But I digress. To be absolutely clear: I have no beef with YA fiction, or with those who choose to write it, or those who choose to read it. What I do have an issue with is the assumption that by marketing certain books as being for young adults we can treat their success as indicators of health in young adult reading specifically. The pedestal-mounting of YA as the saviour of modern fiction is dangerously misguided.

Slow down, you read too fast…

Paul Raven @ 24-02-2009

mosiac of a man reading a book… you’ve got to make the moment last. Or so says Ian McDonald over at the Pyr blog, confessing that he’s a slow reader and proud of it:

What interests me here is not so much the dwindling of attention spans, as what I call ‘nuggeting’ – scanning only for the important points, the catching points where the eye and the brain latch on to information – a point of change or transition or a contrast. Nugget to nugget, getting the eye-kicks in at the required bpm. I wonder if that’s what the commentariat mean when they say ‘the storyline did not engage me’ –the nuggets, the changes, the beats didn’t come fast enough. I think it’s a sad and bad thing. If we’re exposed to only what stimulates, it deadens the response. Reading isn’t only about finding out what happens next. Why hurry to the end? Take your time. There’s plenty to enjoy on the way.

I half-agree with McDonald here – certain books demand to be read more slowly, either because they are richer in ‘nuggets’ or because the prose itself is satisfying to linger over (or because they’re not written very well, though I tend to give up on bad books these days, as life’s too short already).

But equally there are books that demand to be read quickly, and are all the more fun for that. And most of all, I think there are big risks in making general statements about how and why people should read for pleasure; McDonald naturally has a creator’s concern about his work being appreciated as he intended it, but I know I’d be a resentful of being told how I should best enjoy a book by anything other than the book itself. [via SF Signal; image by takomabibelot]

What about you – is it fast-moving page-turners that you’re after, or do you prefer books that you can lose yourself in for a week or two?

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