In the fall of 2006, I was in a bad rut. An experiment in home ownership had gone disastrously awry and my dissertation advisor had split Penn for Princeton. I spent most of my time watching Star Wars and playing Sudoku, trying to ignore the horrible stomach pains I had, which took months of tests and medicines to finally diagnose. I was cut off from everyone, adrift in my goals, and in danger of lapsing into what could have been serious depression.
One of the things that pulled me out of that funk was a local web site called Young Philly Politics. The site had been a group blog of some friends, just out of college, most of them, who had been involved in the Howard Dean campaign in 2004 and an effort to upend the local DA in a primary challenge. Before the mayoral primary, they relaunched the site to allow anyone to create a profile and start posting to the blog. Many of the posters were this core group of young progressives, some were hacks and astroturf plants working for the various campaigns, many were cranks — and still others were like me, people who were highly interested in the outcome of the primary but who hadn’t had much direct experience in Philadelphia electoral politics.
Before long, state reps and city councilmen, most of the political reporters for local papers and radio, and even some of the mayoral candidates were posting and commenting on the site. We all had candidates we liked (and some we didn’t) and issues we pushed — even within a community as seemingly heterogeneous as progressive bloggers, we had huge areas of disagreement, and the debate got fierce. Sometimes you would find allies, whether over issues or over a general approach, a way of writing about the world. That winter and spring, my best friends in the world were people I had never met.
And — it didn’t matter who you were or what your credentials were. If you wrote a thoughtful, well-argued post, it got on the front page, which meant that everyone saw it. That was the motivation to say more, to do better. I was briefly famous among politicians and journalists because I wrote some really good posts about local tax issues, and one about nativist attitudes in Philadelphia politics. I didn’t work for a campaign, or a newspaper. I just wrote my ass off. Where else is that even possible?
This, to me, is the beauty of writing for blogs, and for Twitter. With time, hard work, and a few pieces of great writing, it doesn’t matter who you work for, what you do, or where you went to school. You can rub elbows with famous writers, talk shop with people who work for your favorite magazines, and wind up getting written up in the newspaper. It’s not a meritocracy. But it offers great meritocratic possibilities. And maybe even more importantly, it offers a promise of community.
For the past few months, I’ve written here extensively on the past, present, and future of reading. By plugging away at it, I feel like I’ve learned a tremendous amount about it, through the act of writing itself. I’ve also met many brilliant and like-minded people who are trying to sort this out. I’ve tried to articulate both what’s wrong with how we usually talk about reading technologies (whether past or present), and stake out the basic principles of some alternatives. At every step, I’ve benefited from critical and complementary comments and cross-posts; in some cases, I feel like I’ve helped to spark discussions and ideas in others.
Today, I launched a project that I hope will take this further. It’s called Bookfuturism.com.
The basic premise of Bookfuturism.com is that it’s like The Daily Kos, TPM Café, or yes, Young Philly Politics for book and media nerds. Anyone can create an account and begin creating content, whether blog posts, book pages, links to important stories, or commentary on another user’s entries. It has no institutional or corporate sponsorship or structure. All it has are a bunch of men and women who care passionately about reading and writing and want to understand its future, so they can be a part of it.
It’s a commons, which means it’s a place to share news and ideas and to collaborate on projects. There’s already one project underway — a collection of essays on the future of reading edited by Clusterflock’s Andrew Simone — that’s being developed in partnership with the site. Some of the contributors — I’m one of them — are going to write our entries in public and incorporate feedback from the community before we ship it off to be printed, as a real, live physical book. (Bookfuturists love paper and print. As Robin Sloan has said, books are great techné.) And we have other collaborations already in the works, from meetups to conferences to reading groups. If you’re interested in reading and technology, this will be the place to be.
Books are a privileged object, even in the digital world, but I also want to try to include reading of all kinds. Journalism is likewise an important example, as are blogs and web sites. But so are text messages, street signs, video games, comic books, technical manuals, restaurant menus, and medical forms. In our hyperliterate culture, reading is everywhere — and everywhere it’s in flux.
I also want Bookfuturism.com to be a kind of social network for Bookfuturists like me. There are clear markets for writing by technological triumphalists (I call these guys and girls technofuturists) and doomsayers (when it comes to reading, this group can be called bookservatives). It’s easy to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to new technology; it’s a lot harder to try to engage with its strengths and weaknesses, to think of ways it could work better, to situate it in history, to study its effect on a culture.
Bookfuturists, though, being equally people of the screen and the page, who know that both screens and pages are as varied and self-differentiated as the act of reading itself, are well situated to offer those readings. However, our status as members of two worlds makes it hard for us. We’re the humanists who can’t put down our iPhones, the tech geeks who read Proust. We don’t fit in at the faculty club or at a technology trade show. We have a hard time explaining to our friends and families why we collect card catalogs and buy two copies of used books — one to read, another to feed to the two-sided scanner. We’re the nerds among nerds.
This is also why I wanted to start this site. Because — and this might sound hokey, but I mean every word of it — there’s no reason why any of us should ever feel alone.
I hope you’ll come by, create an account, and start writing. If you have a blog of your own already, feel free to cross-post or link to your site. (Some of you might be clever enough to automate this.) If you don’t, but have something to say about all this, this is a great time to start one.
You can also post links to stories, blog posts, product reviews, and new books that you think this community shouldn’t miss. (One of the great things about Young Philly Politics was that during the run-up to the primary, it was hands down the best news site in town – period.) This should be the place you go for news on reading technology. At least, I’m going to do my best to make it so.
It’s an exciting time for reading now, because everything is in flux. Soon, you might be able to read magazines on a Hulu-like site on your gorgeous Apple tablet. Giants of publishing will continue to fall. Others will vie to replace them. Amazon and Barnes & Noble will sort out the pricing and compensation market for e-books, and publishers will figure out when to release them. Book piracy might go mainstream.
And yes, human nature itself might change.
It’s all happening now. I’m just glad we get to see it.