The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

From space to time

Here’s more material on rethinking reading and attention.

James Bridle looks at Allen Lane’s 20th-century innovations with Penguin paperbacks and intuits a new axiom:

The book — by which I mean long-form text, in any format — is not a physical thing, but a temporal one.

Its primary definition, its signal quality, is the time we take to read it, and the time before it and the time after it that are also intrinsic parts of the experience: the reading of reviews and the discussions with our friends, the paths that lead us to it and away from it (to other books) and around it.

Publishers know very little about the habits and practices of their readers, and they impinge on this time very little, leaving much of the work to the retailers and distributors.

Amazon and Apple understand experience design, and they know more about our customers than we do; readers’ experience with our product is mediated and controlled by forces beyond ours.

Okay — this is a place to start. But there’s one problematic conclusion that Bridle pretty quickly draws from this. I wouldn’t toss it out, but I’d want to heavily qualify it. It’s the transformation from time as a condition of experience to something that determines value.

For example: Bridle says that readers don’t value what publishers do because all of the time involved in editing, formatting, marketing, etc., is invisible to the reader when they encounter the final product. Maybe. But making that time/labor visible CAN’T just mean brusquely insisting that publishers really are important and that they really do do valuable work. It needs to mean something like finding new ways for readers to engage with that work, and making that time meaningful as THEIR time.

In short, it means that writers and producers of reading material probably ought to consider taking themselves a little less seriously and readers and reading a little more seriously. Let’s actually BUILD that body of knowledge about readers and their practices — let’s even start by looking at TIME as a key determinant, especially as we move from print to digital reading — and try to offer a better, more tailored yet more variable range of experiences accordingly.

In that spirit, Alain Pierrot starts by thinking about this problem of how much of our time we give different texts, and offers a concrete idea for gathering and incorporating that data. (He’s building off an Information Architects post about an iPad project that incorporates Average Reading Time, or ART, into its interface! Brilliant!)

Can I read the next chapter of this essay, study or novel before I’m called to board the plane, before my train comes to the station, or should I pick a shorter magazine article or a short story from Ether Books, etc.?

On a more professional field, can I spare the time to read the full version of the report, or should I restrain to the executive summary, plus the most relevant divisions of the report before the meeting?

Or in academic situations, what amount of reading time should I plan to spend on the textbook, on the recommended readings and extra relevant titles before I sit term/final examinations?…

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to leverage all the occasions where digital texts are chunked in relevant spans to store their ART into metadata, made available to apps that would sort timewise what I’m proposed to read? Social media and relevant storage solutions might host measured ARTs at convenience.

XML structured editing affords many solutions for identifying the relevant sections of texts, and storing their length, timewise. I would love to see the feature embedded into a next version of ePub, or at least recommended as best practice.

Would that make sense for Google Books, Amazon, iBooks, publishers, librarians?

And this definitely dovetails with Amazon offering readers its most-highlighted passages. What do people pay attention to? And how long do they pay attention to it?

Reading Bridle — which is very smart, but seems to fall back on an assumption that publishers already know everything they need to know, they just aren’t doing what they need to do — and then reading the IA post — which is quite deliberately playing around with a bunch of different ideas, treating the digital text as a wide-open idea — even though they’re both about trying to pull off this very difficult move from space to time — illustrates how much is changing right now.

If I had to guess, I’d say, bet on the software guys to figure this out first. Even if publishers and booksellers have a better brick-and-mortar position, software is just plain faster. From space, to time.


I have always appreciated the little notes on typography that one publisher (Knopf?) regularly appended to its volumes. It’s a tiny example of “making visible” the non-obvious value-add of editors and publishers. Surely there are others.

Great post. My brain is percolating.

Hmm… I’m not sure where this all fits in, but here are two thoughts that come to mind:

1. When Robin and I were at The Book Works down here in Del Mar, the owner, Lisa Stefanacci, explained that more than anything else, a review on NPR drove people to her store to buy any given book. As a small, independent bookseller, too often she would not have sufficient stock of the book and have to send people off to other retail sources or ask them to come back later. Maybe this is another example of publishers knowing “little about the habits and practices of their readers” and leaving that work to retailers. If she knew ahead of time (preferably via the publisher) that a book was going to be spoken about on NPR, she could prepare for the interest in the book. The publisher would benefit too, I bet. They’d sell more books at the rates they charge her over those at a big box retailer (assuming the rates are different and/or if the big boxes even carry the book). And I wonder how many people that she turns away never get around to going somewhere else—those sales are completely lost.

2. Steven Johnson’s recent post “The Glass Box and the Commonplace Book” takes another look at the collecting of quotes from text sources through the tradition of commonplace books. This was the first I’d heard of them before, but apparently “just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep” one. His description of John Locke’s use of a commonplace book reminds me of what I love about Delicious and, to a lesser extent, Tumblr. They let me quickly and easily collect quotes and tag them with keywords. Later on, those tags help me find patterns, draw connections, and serendipitously revisit other ideas. Johnson goes on to describe his experience with the iPad and the inability to copy text from the iBook application, or to even select text in the NY Times and WSJ applications. Talk about not taking your reader seriously and risking irrelevance if your text doesn’t appear as part of someone’s greater understanding at a later time.

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