Open Books: The E-Reader Reads You

(Image via The Heads of State)

E-books promise not a plenitude of ideas and narratives but a wealth of information to better rationalize the unpredictable behavior of readers. E-readers make us into the content. 

It’s fitting that at the end of this essay about the proliferation of e-readers, Scott McLemee invokes critic Franco Moretti, who has devoted the past decade to deromanticizing literary criticism and reconfiguring serious study of the novel as a bloodless, quasi-objective matter of empirical data analysis. In this New Left Review essay, which touches on his idea of “distant reading” — the opposite of close reading, the careful scrutiny of particular works— Moretti declares, “We know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them.” If e-readers live up to their potential, he just may get his wish.

McLemee rightly cautions against making e-books vs. their printed and bound counterparts an either-or proposition: “I am biased in favor of reading itself, rather than towards one format,” he explains. In the aggregate, more reading will likely happen thanks to e-readers. As they become more prevalent, they will make more books accessible to more readers. Books will become cheaper, and as standardized digitization will make them easy to copy and circulate, most will be available free to those willing to test the piracy waters. And just as the advent of the mp3 led to heretofore impossible-to-hear music becoming available to anybody willing to search for it, long out-of-print books will probably end up being shared on niche blogs and torrent sites. No book need ever become lost. It will be like a library fire in reverse.

That said, the nature of the format nevertheless certainly affects the reading experience and the specific qualities of works that end up being tailored to it. The iPod, which helped establish the feasibility of similar gadgets for books, has certainly changed the production of pop music, which is now mastered with earbuds in mind. Singles once again dominate the market; compiling songs into albums has become more nostalgic than necessary or economically warranted. And I still vividly remember throwing out my entire CD collection — for me, a drastic, dramatic act of severance with material things that seemed unthinkable right up to the moment I was doing it. I can’t yet imagine doing such a thing with my books, glossed as they are with my precious marginalia, but objects can be swiftly desacralized. Changes are sure to come to how we buy and keep books, and because of the nature of e-readers and our established ideas about the sanctity of reading, those changes may be more profound than anything that has happened to music.

Much as Moretti asserts the primacy of numbers in the study of letters, so do the manufacturers of e-readers privilege numbers over words — not only in their exuberance over the sales growth in digital books — up 600 percent from 2008 to the end of 2009, McLemee notes, and some publishers expect sales to double in 2011, according to this New York Times report by Julie Bosman — but also in the data about reader behavior they have the potential to supply to publishers. Of course, publishers have always necessarily been more interested in the bottom line than the integrity of the content, but with the advent of e-publishing, books will become even more like arbitrary widgets to the people selling them. For publishers, books will be defined not by the words in them so much as by the comprehensive numerical data set capturing the contours of the market for them.

That is, the truth about them for publishers will be no different from what it is for distant-reading critics like Moretti — a matter of tabulated, graphable data. “Distance, let me repeat it, is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text,” Moretti argues. “And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more.” It’s a different view of the abundance e-books promise — not a plenitude of ideas and narratives but a wealth of information to better rationalize the unpredictable behavior of readers. E-readers make us into the content.

Thus far, the publishing industry, Bosman reports, has had difficulty marketing e-books, and it relies on the bookstore environment as a “place of discovery,” in the CEO of Simon & Schuster’s words. But once the active e-reading population has grown to a sufficient size, marketing data on who reads what will be pouring in from the devices themselves. The most popular e-reader, the Kindle, connects silently and wirelessly with the mothership, communications over which the user has no control short of shutting off its wireless function, the main means for adding content to it. (In the past, Amazon has felt no compunction about deleting content from customers’ devices, as in 2009, when 1984 and Animal Farm were mysteriously erased from some Kindles.) The devices are designed to function as a portable marketplace, with users impulse-buying e-books through the store interface built in, and Amazon archives on its own servers the contents of any individual Kindle. With the Kindle, the bookstore is the book.

Thanks to these innovations, publishers will know what books you’ve read; when you read them; what you chose to read next, or simultaneously; how long it took you; and what other books people read when they read what you have. The potential data mine this all represents may eventually divest readers of their need to discover anything. Instead, recommendation engines can take over, manufacturing serendipity for users as is already the case on Amazon’s website, only now with the not necessarily solicited advice being ported directly into the scene of reading. And if you shop through Google’s new bookstore, all that information and be joined with all the data derived from your search and browsing histories to further refine recommendations and circumscribe the scope of what is readily offered to you.

But perhaps more important, publishers will be able to draw from trends in this rich data for its editorial decisionmaking, exploiting connections this information reveals among various demographics in the reading public, calibrating their lists to actual reader behavior with more precision that dumb sales data once allowed. Such rapid responsiveness can trigger a feedback loop that precludes the possibility of spontaneous, unexpected desires, fashioning a smoothly functioning market sealed off from vital disruptions. Readers will be sealed in the tombs of their revealed preferences. To capture the feeling of discovery and possibility again, they will have to look somewhere other than books.