Friday, October 21, 2011

Literary Locks and the Future of Books

Mary Shelley's lock of hair

Among the artefacts held by The New York Public Library are locks of hair from numerous 19th century authors. Back then it was the done thing to send a snip of one’s tresses affixed to a humdinger of a literary missive to, well, anyone really. Those whose hair bits live forever in the NYPL include Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Shelley (who would’ve undoubtedly been the envy of many a young lady for her lavish curls.) The Frankenstein author’s coiffure is among a display (which also includes Charles Dickens’ letter opener, crafted from his dead cat's paw) to mark the centenary of the NYPL’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Slightly macabre yes, but those sumptuous locks and artfully penned epistles are to bibliophiles what religious relics are to pilgrims. It begs the question: what oddities will today’s authors leave behind for obsessive fans to pore over 100 years from now?

Perhaps while their computer archaeologists work to recover Margaret Atwood’s tweets or Neil Gaiman's blog posts from somewhere deep in the annals of the Internet, our descendants will chuckle at the obtuseness of the future of reading debate back in 2011. They might shake their heads at the naiveté of 21st century doomsayers who foretold the downfall of the traditional book in the face of tablets and e readers (just as television didn’t toll the death of radio). Or maybe they’ll puzzle over the quaint way we used to bind and print paper in order to perform such a simple task as reading. Will the vast divide between “author” and “reader” baffle them? Whatever the future of reading, the way we access books and print media will be a dramatic, irreversible and exciting change.

It used to be, if you wanted to read, you visited your local library or bookshop, made your choice (based on a friend’s recommendation, the look of the cover, or a review), took the phone off the hook and entered the sublimely solitary domain of the book.  In fact, most Aussie readers are still enamoured of the hardcopy (Neilson Bookscan figures show retail book sales are booming, with growth recorded every year for the past three years.) But there’s now a whole new empire out there, dedicated to transforming the traditional read into an interactive, social experience.

The list of new ways to engage with the traditional book is mind-boggling. Readers can pay to download a Vook (the offspring of a video and a book). Words are hyperlinked to their definitions and with each chapter comes the option to watch an author interview or a piece on the story’s setting. It’s gimmicky, but it has the potential pick up reluctant readers. BookGlutton’s database spans thousands of public domain books, encouraging readers to join or create their own book groups and annotate their reads inside each chapter. The idea is that you read online (on your computer, Ipad or Iphone – it’s not yet linked to Kindle) and discuss as you go.

Similarly, Goodreads encourages members to create lists, recommend books, discuss their favourite reads, keep track of wish lists and interact with like-minded folk. However unlike BookGlutton, you’ll need to read your picks outside of the site (be they paperback, e-reader, tablet, audio book etc.)

With this plethora of newness, the landscape has never looked rosier for the book obsessed. Reading is reaching a new, multi-faceted frontier that’s all about choice. Its future is likely to be a pastiche of online reading and discussion, solitary or interactive e reading (great for travellers) and good old-fashioned curl-up-on-the-couch-with-paperback-in-hand-while-open-fire-roars comfort reading. In a perfect world, it should allow all forms of word loving to co-exist, providing, of course, publishers and booksellers get onboard the digital train.

In a piece about the future of the Internet for the Sunday Times in 1999, Douglas Adams wrote:

1) Everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
2) Anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
3) Anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

12 years later we can add digital books to that ever-expanding list. Reading is set to become the experience we want it to be: passive or fiery, thoughtful or argumentative. Authors no longer need to lop off their own hair to calm their tortured souls – now they can pour their hearts out to an online audience of millions. But those olden-time writers may just get the last laugh. No doubt we’ll soon be reincarnating the dead using DNA from their long severed locks. Just imagine the masterpieces the 19th century wordsmiths have yet to tweet. 

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