The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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What's the basic unit of reading?

See, we’ve got this problem.

We’ve got a bunch of conventions about the ways we read and write which don’t have as much to do with how we read and write as we thought they did.

We’ve got books and newspapers and magazines, and articles and stories, and bookstores and newsstands, and yes, blogs and databases and wikis and lifestreams, and they all start with the mechanisms of delivery rather than the mechanisms of attention.

Or at least anything like the fundamental mechanisms of attention.

If there are any. Because maybe there are and maybe there aren’t.

At any rate, it seems to be the case that these conventions are dependent upon context, so that they don’t necessarily translate if they get taken out of that context. Change the format or screen size, change how we encounter them in space, change our routines of how we pay (and get paid) for them or how we incorporate them into our day, and the whole game could change.

New media, new expectations.

Now, those expectations don’t come out of nowhere. They’re… a mix of different things, old and new.

(So if we’re reading a newspaper on a computer, a big part of our expectations will be our expectations of how we read and have read newspapers, and a big part will be our expectations of all the other things we do and have done on that computer. And those things vary by context, by generations, by culture, by idiosyncratic stuff that we can’t really account for.)

So maybe it isn’t fair to call them new expectations at all. They’re not brand-new. There’s still an inertial weight to them.

They’re remixed. Recycled. Restructured.

Here’s an analogy that comes up often. It’s said that iTunes helped shift the basic unit of commerce of music away from the single album (especially the compact disc) and towards the single track.

But, of course, the music single doesn’t come out of nowhere. CDs were always divided into tracks. So were cassettes and LPs (even though they didn’t really have any reason to be). Radio always played single tracks. So did music videos. And record companies still sold singles — not as many as in the 50s or 60s, but they did sell them and fans did collect them.

And when people started listening to music on their computers, making mix CDs and swapping tracks online, putting their virtual jukebox on shuffle, the single track was the unit of attention. This was a long time before people decided to try to sell them.

So it’s a restructuring of expectations rather than a wholesale reinvention of them.

Do reading and writing have similar inertial moments? Are there latent conventions, or combinations of conventions, borrowed either from reading and writing’s past, or how we’ve come to use these machines, or some combination of the two, that will emerge?

I think that’s what we have to try to figure out.


I like the idea of playing around with the mechanisms of attention more.

How did we come to pay attention to books in the “old” days?

I also like the idea of thinking about context more. I think we’ve had this argument before:none of you guys “curl up with a good book,” yet for me it is an exact description of my body language in the height of reading ecstasy. Robin’s adventures lately have made me think a lot about reading on trains, planes, and automobiles–and on the bus, and while walking. What about inthe kitchen? In bed? The canonical reading situation that Kindle’s electronic ink supposedly solves is reading out on the grass–which used to be a favorite past-time of mine, except I no longer have time.

Books still get our attention in lots of different ways, from co-op placement in stores and cover and spine design to the way we arrange books around our homes. Some setups “move product” and others don’t. And some text layouts and physical book forms are easier to read (especially for certain kinds of text) than others.

And maybe it’s obvious or maybe it isn’t, but a lot of the broader subfields of analog reading — advertisements, billboards, newspapers, text on TV, greeting cards, street and shop signs, etc. — are much “showier” in the way that they reach for (and grab) our attention.

I remember my reading-fiction-for-writers professor Bharati Mukherjee jokingly encouraging us turn her books out at the bookstore, cover parallel to the edge of the shelf, because that makes such a big difference.

When I was shopping for chemistry books for my high school class, I was surprised what a big deal layout, typography, and art direction were for comprehension. Interestingly, my sophomores were downright pissy about overly busy books with too many bright photos and punchy headlines. I wish I had written down some of the snark they had for books that tried to hard to grab their attention. They were far more interested in clear tables, quiet illustrations, big margins, and really big equations with lots of examples. In physics, too, layout can really impact your relationship with a book: Griffiths’s E&M and Griffiths’s QM are written in the same clear, wry style and have the same density of explanation and examples. But oh man, I still love my quantum mechanics book–the paper was so smooth, the typography so beautiful, the margins so perfect, the illustrations so clean, the cover so elegant and amusing. It was a pleasure to sit and study with that book, it calmed one’s anxieties about the subject greatly. I have no idea where my electricity & magnetism book is.

These are the Right Questions.

I’m chewing on the idea of “latent conventions.” In my imagination, they’re little things hiding in plain sight—so obvious & fundamental that they seem completely unremarkable—but they’re just waiting to be exploited & exploded. Hmm.

Yeah. I mean, just to get it started, Kottke mentions three: the novella, the short-story, and the long magazine article.

We know how to write these things and how to read them. We’re already doing it! But there’s something about them that makes them underrepresented in many print contexts, but they overperform in most digital ones. Exactly where “book-length” writing might underperform.

If you click through that last link to the main story linked in that post, Charlie Stross has a different metaphor. He compares the novel to the corset, and the novella to the bra. I love it! What could be more obvious, more taken-for-granted, than underwear? And yet, what strikes us as an odder set of conventions now than the underwear of the past? It’s made to fit and support our bodies, but it reshapes us too, as we wedge ourselves into it.

“He comĀ­pares the novel to the corset, and the novella to the bra.”

Oh wow. That is good. G-O-O-D good.

Do you find yourself reading the comments on a blog piece? I often read them for more clarification or expansion on a short blog post. I like the idea of diverse viewpoints on a specific topic, all in bite-sized chunks. It provides a fast, easy way to get a rounder understanding of something, and a feeling for the public reaction (zeitgeist). With a controversial subject, often the comments will reveal what the writer could/would not, lending an extra richness and veracity.

Reading short blog length articles is already a natural part of the day for many using Google Reader, Huff Post, etc. I suspect this article-with-comments format that bloggers first introduced will ultimately be embraced by currently-closed news sources (NYTimes, WSJ) who do not yet show comments.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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