Just as think-pieces on “what is the definition of digital humanities” have proliferated in recent years, textual scholars are increasingly invested in the question of “what is the future of the book.” A final paragraph on the possibilities of digital textuality is now almost ubiquitous in books and articles on the topic, which is productive and necessary, but can often feel like a gesture towards a topic–the book in the digital age–that in fact deserves a deeper dive.
To that end, I appreciate the format of Bob Stein’s “A Unified Field Theory of Publishing in the Networked Era” for its transparency–bullet points suggest ideas-in-progress, steps to be debated, questions ready for answers. The robust comments section, too, suggests the very communities of readers that Stein believes are the key to understanding potential forms of publication in a networked age
For Stein, the networked era requires a shift in consciousness from bibliographic, or physical forms of books to practices of readership, or as he states, “how [books] are used” (1). In his list of key questions, he asks how we might “account for the range of behaviors that comprise reading in the era of the digital network,” and goes on to consider ways to engage readers with the author’s conclusions at a deeper, more satisfying level” (2). Ultimately, his answer rests in the idea of communities of readers and authors that exist in a publishing business model. He suggests “a new formulation might be that publishers and editors contribute to building a community that involves an author and a group of readers who are exploring a subject” (4)
In the comments section, Michael Jensen wonders about the time aspect of the in-depth reader-meet-author, communities of reading that Stein suggests, noting that “most of us simply have too little time to really investigate/explore/expand out” to participate and read in the way that Stein describes. With this, I wonder, what other facets of a community of readers might we examine to determine a better way of producing sustained engagement? Should we be looking at reading practices, but also what readers do generally as embodied beings with obligations, lives, schedules?
Thinking also of the balance between readership and physical form, Stein’s vision of the future indicates that “novels will not continue to be the dominant form of fiction” but rather, participatory games will based on their narrative capacities (5). In considering the futures of the book, it stands that Stein’s turn from content or appearance towards reading practices also suggests that we should look to other non-book forms that are “read.” Of this idea, I might ask, what other media, beyond games, shed light on narrative and reading practices today?
I was surprised (and okay, a little excited!) to see Cory Doctorow, of #ITPCore1 syllabus fame, in the comments, too. He points out moments in Stein’s argument that fall prey to what he terms the “futurismic fallacy,” and states that “tomorrow will be like today, but more so.” I have been thinking about that phrase since I read it. I’ve found that in articles and books on the future of publishing and the potential of hypertext, that authors will readily list off statements about what technology might be able to do in the future–as Vannevar Bush illustrates, this is ultimately productive–but these anticipations often feel impossible since they are not well scaffolded onto our current technologies of reading. In short, it can feel like chasms between Point A and B. But the idea that “tomorrow will be like today, but more so” calls for a re-examination of what exactly constitutes reading practice in our current moment–and the answer to this will be the basis upon which we can envision the types of new forms that books and reading will take. So, what does characterize reading and books today, and how might we distill these characteristics into principles for future publishing?