A Cloud of Snippets

The growing popularity of reading electronic versions of books continues to be a topic of widespread discussion. The latest observer to weigh in on the matter is Steven Johnson in his article, How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write, in the Wall Street Journal.

Johnson describes a recent “aha” moment, courtesy of the Kindle, when he realized that the migration of printed books to the digital realm would change the very nature of reading profoundly. “It will expand the universe of books at our fingertips and transform the solitary act of reading into something far more social.”

Johnson is not a proponent of this development. Rather, he does “fear that one of the great joys of books reading—the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author’s ideas—will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines an newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.”

What is most worrisome to me is his claim that we will no longer read in a sustained, concentrated fashion. “Because they have been largely walled off from the world of hypertext, print books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of liner, deep-focus reading.”

I shudder when I think that electronic devices are going to extinguish the process of “deep-focus reading.” I see that happening. I read about some of its effects on young individuals, on the educational system in general. And I become alarmed.

Johnson suggests that we will buy more books in this new world which is good news for publishers but bad news for readers who aren’t going to finish most of them. Readers he suggests will create snippets of books or a “booklog” where they will select various passages or sections of books to read rather than the entire volume. This is even more worrisome to me.

In a comment on this prediction in the New York Times blog about books, Jennifer Schuessler writes: “What will this mean for the books themselves? Perhaps nothing more than a few strategically placed words or paragraphs. Perhaps entire books will be written with search engines in mind…” so that you’ll be able to create “playlists of [your] favorite literary moments.”

John Updike anticipated all this a few years ago. In an article in the New York Times he bemoaned the transformation of the book into a collection of short snippets, calling it “a pretty grisly scenario.” He continued:

“The printed bound and paid-for book was—still is, for the moment [this was three years ago]—more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both. It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter …Book readers and writers are approaching the condition of holdouts, surely hermits who refuse to come out and play in the electronic sunshine of the post-Gutenberg village.”

Later he concludes: “The book revolution, which from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparking cloud of snippets.”

What will the bookshelf of the future look like? What do short snippets of text look like? Do they have covers? Do they smell musty? Do they have words? Do you imagine wanting only to read the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms or the first sentence of Anna Karenina? Yes, a pretty grisly scenario? Grim, too.