I loved that the original Kindle let me annotate a book. Being able to add and search for my own thoughts amid the previously locked words of others without physically damaging the original opened up a world of possibilities. What if you could download books that had been pre-annotated? I would pay extra to read Freakonomics with commentary by Paul Krugman, The New Jim Crow with notes from editors at The Nation, or the Bible annotated by the creators of South Park. A book could always inspire new layers of meaning, but now it can host that inspiration and a slew of associated conversations.
Recently, at the Boston Book Festival, I was lucky enough to take part in an amazing conversation about the future of reading and writing. We can mourn the passing of sustained attention, the hermetically sealed author, and, indeed, the publishing industry's business model. But the networked world of words replacing it could be even better.
First, let's consider what we're losing in the transition. Tufts University child development professor Maryanne Wolf laments the loss of what she calls "deep reading." Long-form reading has become subject to the same multitasking options as TV, radio, movies, and the web. Read a book on an iPad and the distractions are embedded in the physical form itself. Paperbacks do not have pop-up birthday reminders, a global music library, or kamikaze bird games built in. As a result, English professors report that today's students are unable or unwilling to read lengthy 19th-century novels. Perhaps someone should adapt Pride and Prejudice into an Instagram feed.
Writing too is losing its mystique, as authors are expected to be the chief marketing officers and customer support VPs for their "brands." One man angrily tweeted me that because I did not tweet him back, he was not going to finish my book. His loss; I already had his money.
But to focus on the negative would be to miss what's thrilling about all this change. Harvard Library director Robert Darnton, dressed in sweater, slacks, and a tweed blazer, looked and sounded every bit his job title when he reminded our panel that there were more books published in 2011 than ever, due to the democratization of publishing enabled by technology. Add blogs, texts, and status updates, and it's clear that words are a growth market (though I grant you that revenue per word is declining).
A look at several of the most interesting apps available today reveals strong hints about where those words are headed. Findings is a web app that allows clipping, linking, sharing, and thus deep remixing of segments of text previously trapped within bound volumes. The e-book platform Readmill makes the Kindle look like a stone tablet in the way it lets readers compare content—and have a conversation—about several books at once. The iPhone apps Circa and Tapestry are among the first text experiences on a smartphone that feel built for mobile first.
Yet we're doing more than digitizing words and adding tantalizing interfaces. We are networking them—and the ideas they represent. What excites me most about the future of reading is the linking, translating, co-creating, and discovering we have yet to do.
During our conversation, MIT Media Lab cofounder Nicholas Negroponte told the story of a previously nonliterate African village whose children were given tablet computers—without instructions or instructors. Regardless, the students figured out how to message each other and use apps; within weeks, they had hacked Android. If 6-year-olds previously unexposed to writing can do this now, losing a few dusty 19th-century novels feels like a small price to pay for the future those kids might create.
Baratunde Thurston is the author of the New York Timesbest seller How to Be Black and the founder of Cultivated Wit, a comedy and technology company that tells stories in engaging ways.