Reading in a Networked Age
A Return to Authenticity?
For about a year now I have been reading most of my books in electronic form through an app called Readmill. It is changing how I read and how often. And I’m fairly certain it is changing the nature of reading itself, but perhaps in ways that are more familiar than I first realized.
For the uninitiated, Readmill is “a unique ebook reader for iPad and iPhone that lets you read, share and discover great books.” Or so the motley crew of misfit designers and developers who build the app would have you believe. Readmill, in fact, is much more than an ebook reader; it is a platform for networked reading, a place to discover not only new books but also new insights from new people that you meet within the margins of a text.
Like other e-readers, Readmill enables you to highlight and comment on passages, which ultimately get saved to your profile. You can also view what other readers have highlighted as relevant or interesting while you are reading, and make comments on their highlights as well.
Unlike other e-readers, however, Readmill enables you to do this in a seamless way. And in this Readmill stands miles apart from other e-readers. The interface has a wonderfully simple, modernist aesthetic that keeps everything hidden until you ask for it. As a result, reading on Readmill is much like reading a book — that is, if a book could reveal a torrent of insights gathered by all the readers who came before you with a simple swipe to the left.
In this way, Readmill promotes a kind of networked reading. It was this very idea that lured me to the product in the first place — the ability to share with others not only what you read, but also how you read it. This, to my mind, marks the beginning of a revolution in how we read and consume books, but one that arguably returns us to a more authentic form of reading.
For many, reading is seen as a solitary activity, a domain for introverts who not only enjoy stories but who love reasoning their way through a text or prose for themselves, on their own terms. Readmill preserves this; it does not intrude. But Readmill preserves something else: it preserves that beautiful and wonderfully exciting moment when you find, in the margins of a previously borrowed text, traces of readers who came before you. It’s magical. It’s like being in a library again, or a used book store, confronting the thoughts and ideas of your reader-forebears who left fugitive pieces for you to consider, accept or reject.
This aspect of reading is nothing new. As Northrop Frye once observed, literature is a human apocalypse, man’s revelation to man. We have, therefore, always read as a social network. Readmill, and other e-readers, are simply compressing the distance in space and time between our interactions, allowing us to share more quickly in our mutual connection as builders of, and dwellers in, a rich history of eloquence. It is this compression of space and time that is new, and a development I wholeheartedly embrace.
For a time it seemed that the creation of large book stores and the magical delivery system of Amazon had all but destroyed the experience of reading books second-hand. You ordered your book, it arrived by stork, and you leafed your way though it without any soul to encounter (other than your own and the author’s, of course). Reading in a networked age still allows for that. But it allows for something altogether more satisfying, too: the ability to discover other souls who came before you, and to share in your mutual connection as builders and explorers of Babel across space and in real time.