Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

When Greeks began to write, Plato lamented this new technology, claiming it would ruin learning and memory. Instead of having to memorize everything, people could store knowledge externally in print and in text form. If you have some time to read more about how writing is a technology, check out this article (warning: it’s long and dense). In the long run, people still retained knowledge and added to our knowledge base over the millennia in art, science, math, literature, and so on. We live in an age where one newspaper may contain more information than the average citizen might come across in a lifetime just a few centuries ago. But how well are we remember these days in a new era? Nick Carr explores how we treat memory and attention span differently know that we are constantly on the Internet and can store vast amounts of information in cyberspace. Why remember when Marie Antoinette was beheaded when you can look it up in seconds on Wikipedia? Why memorize your friends’ phone numbers when they’re stored on a mobile device?

Out With the Old, In With the New 

I’m getting off topic, but what I mean is that whenever we develop a new way to store and disseminate information, we evaluate if this new technology will affect our way of thinking, analyzing, and remembering. And it usually does, although we cannot fully analyze the long term effects for decades. Along with multitasking and web surfing affecting our train of thought and ability to concentrate  we’re changing the way we read because of the e-book. I read an article that explores this topic. I’ve already talked about how e-books change reading comprehension for people who’ve grown up on print books (though not children). I’ve also talked a little bit about how some publishers and retailers like Amazon want to make reading social with shared underlinings and annotations (Amazon, stop sharing my notes! It’s creepy); some applications like Riffle try to make reading and recommendations a social media experience.

But apart from sharing our highlights and notes, e-readers gather information about our reading habits–how quickly we read, where we stop and start reading, how often we read, etc. What you read and how you read it is no longer your private information. This is obvious when we get book recommendations from retailers, but publishers might use this gathered information to encourage readers to edit. For example, if readers on average stop around page 50, the publisher might recommend that the writer shorten the exposition. What if a book you buy is automatically tailored to your tastes via algorithms that know your buying habits and your preferences? What if readers have the option to group edit a text? Of course, publishers have been coming out with new editions of books for years, but usually a new edition takes a while to write and is widely publicized.  What if the edition is specific to you, or you never know that what you’re reading isn’t what came out originally? What if the accessibility of a book is dependent on other readers? All of a sudden, that quiet, private afternoon curled up with a book seems way more disturbing and intrusive.

Is Sharing Caring? 

Mikhail Bakhtin theorized about the relationship between writer, audience, and genre. From what I can remember, a writer writes a book and publishes it, but its reception and genre is dependent on audience. For example, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was intended as an adult novel, but now it is widely considered YA fiction, though much of the content is memoir. Now, that relationship might books more malleable and changeable than ever before: writer publishes book, audience reads book on an e-reader, publisher gathers information and edits the book, and the book comes out again in a new, revised form based on the reader’s preferences and tastes.

I have no idea if this is a good or bad thing. If publishers really do start changing books to appeal to the audience preference’s, both the author’s autonomy and the reader’s choice will be limited. However, as long as the original print version is still available, I guess I’ll just switch back to print instead of risking reading a book that is not what the author intended. I would like to interpret and make reading decisions for myself, thanks very much.

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