Reading, Writing and Will We All Go Tablet?

This recent blog from CNN’s Money got my attention. Read this first (if you want), then come back here. I’ll be waiting with my 2 cents.

10 luminaries look ahead to the business of reading

My 2 Cents

I love Apple, I really do. I have been going on these machines since Apple IIe–you remember, those little taupe boxes with tiny 8-inch screens? They were really cool. You didn’t have to boot Word from a floppy disc–which was the alternative with PCs. And ever since then, even though I have owned a few PCs, I have been a Mac person. Their little ingenious devices always seem to combine several tasks into one and you have to think less about how all these little engines fit together.

The first iBook was cool. The iPod changed music. The iPhone was genius. And now we have this new iPad coming out, which I suspect in one of its iterations will become an indispensible tool that combines a whole bunch of things we’ve been doing on separate machines. Among other tasks, it’s supposed to be a place to really read. (And something not ugly like the Kindle. And Apple’s so good at beating the ugly out of us.)

The coolest thing about my first Apple was that it changed the way I write. It changed how fast I write. I didn’t have to write, then type and erase-write-type over and over. I had this machine that I could write and edit on in one swoop. I used to type 85 words a minute on a typewriter and that was fast for most people I knew. I don’t even know how fast I type now, but I can type almost as fast as I think. So out the words come, down the shoot, and whoosh they are right here, for you to see.

You see, I started writing at a newspaper when we still laid newspapers out on boards, with tape and glue, and used a strange-looking booth to make halftones of newspaper photographs. And writers still worked out their articles on pads or notebooks (not computer pads or notebooks, but the actual yellow journalism pads), then typed them out. Then they were scanned and edited in Word. This was in the early/mid 90s.

How far we’ve come since then, since those days when, yes, we did have internet, although broken and slow and we still called it “electronic mail” but we were still relying on the metaphors of publishing from a previous generation. Even then people were crying the end of print media. All the world would be “hypertext”; I remember people saying this.

Now what does this have to do with Apple? Its devices have made things easy for me, yes, and I will probably try out the iPad, but will I read my newspaper on it? I’m not sure. Yes, Apples/computers changed the way I write and think, but they didn’t make me a better writer.

The internet has changed the way I read, but does it make me a better reader? It makes me a different kind of reader, one that floats from information piece to information piece. And while sometimes rich media can be addictive, I always feel a little bit of a caution when I read things like this, from the founder of Digg:

If I’m reading a book I want to see where my friend left off, or I want to be able to leave a voice annotation around a chapter so if a friend stumbles upon that chapter they can listen to what my thoughts were around that area.

Or this, from a 2006 article in the New York Times:

Once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or ‘playlists,’ as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual ‘bookshelves’…

Although I’m a conservationist in my own garden, I’m not motivated to save the trees. I don’t think that’s a good enough, or wise enough, reason to end print technology. I’m not with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on this. (Feel free to make some books out of the invasive Chinaberry trees in my backyard.) I’m motivated by saving the content. I’m still pining for the era when “authorial intent” was a vital part of literary scholarship (which was, oh, the 1930s?). I’m motivated to keep the content connected to the creators and the word.

When I was in grad school, we read from a book of literary criticism called The Artifice of Indeterminacy. At the time it was a bit left of center, but these once radical poet-thinkers are no longer marginal in their approach to art. Most of our art industries, post Gen-X, are thriving on this indeterminacy. That words are artifice, and can build any tower they wish–that in the age of globalism and irony, symbols can be mixed, twisted, and intentionally severed from their original meanings and left to make something accidentally meaningful is just so… fatalistic.

The majority of our society believes that symbols–and meaning–is fairly mutable. And I’m sure Quentin Tarantino is quite happy with that reality, but I am not. As a writer, I take what I say and write very seriously and the context in which I say and write those things.

There are times when opening a physical newspaper, ripping it out, or sitting with a book in your lap with no other books (webstreams) around you–are the experience that the words are asking of you. Our ability to sort through art and information without the advantage of endless clickability, Wikipedia, or immediate commentary from someone a continent away from us is going to get more difficult. And that ability is a real intellectual and emotional commodity–it contributes to wisdom, not just knowledge.