A Readers’ Manifesto
Written in response to Phillip Jones call for a ‘Manifesto for the Future of the Book Business‘, which I came across too late.
In our digital age when all things appear possible for writers and publishers, in an age when the entrepreneur of the book trade believes “if you build it he will come”, the reader has frequently been reduced to the role of the consumer who accepts what the market provides. It is as though readers do not know what they want until the publishers provide it. Things are shifting, however. Instead of a publisher finding a market for their texts, they need to start finding texts for their markets. Here I would like to propose a place to start.
People have always craved stories — narratives of protagonists engaging with the passage of time. A story is certainly the easiest way to explain almost anything, whether it be a political goal, the working of quarks or how the giant met his downfall. By providing a narrative structure (a story) the writer offers the reader a pathway through the text. Playing with narrative keeps things fresh, but a writer abandons plot completely at great risk to the readership. In the current age of complexity and information overload, the temptation to abandon the story is great but that craving for its logic and clarity may be greater than ever.
We readers often want to share what we are reading, but we should not be required to do so. My reading habits should only be a publisher’s marketing data if I choose to make them so. My local library or bookstore will not keep records of whether I have borrowed or bought Mein Kampf, 30 Shades of Grey, Das Kapital or Donald Trump’s autobiography because the ideas we imbibe in our reading form our innermost thoughts and identities and therefore need to be under our control.
The flow of “being lost in a good book” is easily interrupted by external forces (other tasks that need doing, visitors, ringing phones, vibrating tablets); it should not be interrupted by the text being read. Bad storytelling, poor editing and the need to turn pages have traditionally been the most powerful forces jolting readers out of the story. Technology should enhance immersion in the experience, not pop readers out in order to click a link or watch a video. Technology and media must add to the content without disrupting the experience.
Books are big things. Even short stories can be huge (think of Hemingways’ fabled six-word story about the baby shoes); they expand beyond the private, immersive moment of the reading and insist on being shared. We want to know that other people felt what we did, that they agree with us about the story, that they understood what we understood. There are few greater pleasures than discovering a friend has read a book that you just finished (apart from persuading a friend to read it).
Sometimes we find books we want to read again. Maybe not the whole thing, possibly just a chapter or two that spoke to us, but sometimes the entire book. Many readers have a novel that they find themselves re-reading when life is going hard. Others like to collect the books they have read. We may never re-read them, but the book defines us; looking at our shelves (on the wall or on the e-Reader) is like looking at a self-portrait. When visitors come to visit we try to maneuver them into looking at the books, or we leave a few strategically scattered around. Borrowing books is satisfactory for most of our pleasure reading, but we need to be able to own a few select books (or more) without fear that they will be recalled.
Once you read Moby Dick or A Brief History of Time, you join an elite club. The same holds true once you read all the novels of Lee Childs or Herman Wouk. Looking up on the subway and noticing someone else reading a vampyre novel, you recognize a fellow member of your society. Reading creates common bonds between people — it is a shared experience and shared knowledge that immediately opens channels for discussion and community.
In the middle ages, books were often chained to the library shelves to prevent theft; readers wanted the convenience of the book in their own abode, to read when and where they chose. By the twentieth Century printing and binding were developed enough to provide books that could go most places, but when Pocket Books produced books that could be literally kept in your pocket it revolutionized the industry. Likewise the Kindle pushed eBooks into the mainstream by making the process of starting to read more convenient than ever (click and read). Readers must be able to read in the time and place of their own choosing — the grocery store, the bed, the beach, the bath, the desk or the sofa.
- Comfort of the known
People have been reading texts for thousands of years. We have been reading stories in books for centuries. It is a well-established and traditional medium. We learn to read as children. When adults describe why they like books, they refer to those childhood experiences and the comfortingly familiar process of holding a book and turning the pages. We also like stories we recognize. Genre fiction has always been the driving force of book sales and most of us can say what genres we like or don’t like. When we read a novel we identify those genre traits and appreciate the control provided by that recognition. Like narrative, genre conventions allow us to feel greater control over the complexity of the world we live in.
- Fresh experiences (emotional, narrative, intellectual)
“There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away” wrote Emily Dickinson and readers value the new experiences, new worlds, people and challenging ideas that books can provide. We also value experiencing new methods of telling a story, bends and twists in narrative structure, alternative endings and audio or video tracks that enhance what we are reading or the experience of doing that reading by becoming part of the reading experience.
The pleasure of a well-crafted phrase or sentence, the power of words to evoke worlds in our minds, the challenge of understanding a complex idea composed in words — these and other text-based pleasures lie at the heart of the reading experience (whether we are reading or being read to). They differentiate it from other entertainments or information sources. The audio and video enhancements may complement the words, but they must not replace them. Otherwise we’ll watch a movie.
The new technologies and multimedia conflations that authors and publishers are currently playing with will stand or fall by their ability to enhance these concerns and passions of the readers. Experimentation in form pushes literature forward along new pathways, but unless they bring the readers along, the paths will lead to dead ends.