Review: Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading

Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading
Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading by Jason Merkoski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jason Merkoski was involved on the development team for the Kindle e-book reader and, for a time became a “technology evangelist” for Amazon. This book is a combination memoir and thoughtful exploration of the future of reading in as we make the shift from “analog” to digital in books.

He begins with some history of Ebooks and the development and launch of the first Kindle and then moves into the various implications of the shift to digital, ranging from how we read to what it means to have cloud-based digital content to the use of digital content in education to the fate of libraries. At the end of each chapter is a “Bookmark”, a more focused reflection on a topic related (or sometimes not) to the chapter.

I found the “bookmarks” the most endearing parts of the book, because Merkoski explores in many of these what we will lose or will change in the shift to digital–thinks like book covers (I think of the “analog” to this in some of the wonderful album covers of the LP era). At most we may have a digital icon on our digital shelves. Another talks about the inscriptions we find in many books–how will we do that in a digital age?

There was a kind of guilty wistfulness in much of this–the reflections of someone who obviously REALLY loves paper books who was part of the revolution that will supplant them. He, like many of us in this time, realizes that we are witnessing a profound change in the way we read that will mean the loss of some of the things we love. He also observes that our children (or grandchildren) will probably be oblivious to such things–digital will be all they know.

At the same time, Merkoski sees tremendous potential in this “revolution”–particularly in connecting all that is written into the One Book of human culture. Reading can be immeasurably enriched as we discover the conversation going on between authors, and add to this conversation with our annotations and insights. At the same time, there are pitfalls that reflect the double-edged character of technology–will the lack of physical artifacts (paper books) put us at greater risk of losing great works, will commercialization and digital rights management unnecessarily restrict the availability of digital content, and will the connecting of all this content, and the accessing it on devices with an array of apps lead to digital ADHD?

I’ve explored in greater depth some of the issues Merkoski raises in several blog posts:

The author’s last chapter pinpoints what I think is the source of the ambivalence in this book. Human beings are “analog” beings and probably much of the love many of us have for physical books is their appeal to our physical senses. The digital revolution represents an attempt to transcend our physicality–to digitally put at our finger tips, or even into our brains, the world of knowledge, sound, sight and experience. It even tempts us to try to escape our humanness in digitizing ourselves as people like Ray Kurzweil and other have proposed. I sense Merkoski is both allured and troubled by this project–sensing both the potential wonders and perhaps the loss of what makes us most human–our connection to the physical world. Might we in this “gain the whole world and lose our soul”?

Burning the Page can’t answer all these questions but Merkoski has done a valuable service in helping us understand the revolution we are in the midst of and the questions it will raise.

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Reading 2.0?

I continue to find Jason Merkoski’s Burning the Page quite thought provoking.  One of his chapters is titled “Reading 2.0” after the software convention of naming new versions.  Merkoski explores some of the ways reading might change with the digitization of texts, particular with the search capacity of Google. He proposes that in fact all books are part of One Book and that digitization more possible to realize this reality.

There is an aspect of this that I thoroughly appreciate.  As I commented in “My Books Are Talking To Each Other“, books do converse with each other and are artifacts of a great human conversation that spans the ages. Understanding how an earlier writer influences the writer whose work I’m reading makes my reading of that work deeper. The Great Books series even included a Syntopicon to catalog 102 Great Ideas and references to them in the Great Books. With the search capabilities of Google and the ability to link content via hypertext, Merkoski contends that it is instantly possible to trace this “conversation” from one book to the next and to approach the reality of “one book”.

While aspects of this seem attractive, this also seems a prescription for what I might call “Reading ADHD”, an addiction to reading “rabbit trails” where one never follows just one work to its conclusion.  In limited form, such a capability could enhance our understanding of key ideas in a text. Annotated works serve a similar function.  Run rampant, and it would seem to be the ultimate reading distraction–a distraction to attentive reading.  I wonder if in fact it could function to re-wire the brain in ways that increase the prevalence of true ADHD?

I was staying with a friend in Chicago last night who works as a reference librarian for one of the major universities in Chicago and we got to talking about this.  He spoke of “losing the experience of drinking deeply and slowly from one book” that may be a result of such reading. The wonder of a really good book is to immerse oneself in this particular author’s vision of the world, not to have that vision diffused by all the others who have what seem “related” thoughts.

As we develop these capacities, I wonder if we need to be mindful of what makes for “good reading”.  I wonder if at the very least whether it means that we can turn on or off these functions as appropriate. How do you think digital media will change reading? Do you think there are downsides to this technology that should be avoided or addressed? How do you think reading could be enhanced with this technology? It seems to many that this is a change that is inevitably coming. What I wonder is whether the particular shape of that change is inevitable. Or do we have choices, some better, and some worse? What do you think?