In the Year 3030, Everyone Will Still Read

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Teddy Weatherford.jpg

by Brendan I. Koerner

I have a confession to make: For years now, whenever the conversation has turned to topics along the lines of "the future of the book" or "the future of journalism," my eyes have glazed over. It's not that I have any problem with pontificating on what lies ahead, as evidenced by yesterday's post about genetic intel and race. But as someone who dreamed of becoming a writer ever since my dad read me Leiningen versus the Ants as a wee bairn, I've found the debate over the written word's future a little off-putting. Sure, that's partly because I'm anxious about how I'll continue to feed my family by arranging letters into pleasant orders. But since I can't imagine doing anything else with my life at this point, I've reckoned that my time is better spent producing work rather than wringing my hands. My attitude toward my chosen profession's future, then, was perhaps best summed-up by the great John McPhee in the Paris Review last year:

Writing isn't going to go away. There's a big shake-up—the thing that comes to mind is that it's like in a basketball game or a lacrosse game when the ball changes possession and the whole situation is unstable. But there's a lot of opportunities in the unstable zone. We're in that kind of zone with the Internet. But it's just unimaginable to me that writing itself would die out. OK, so where is it going to go? It's a fluid force: it'll come up through cracks, it'll go around corners, it'll pour down from the ceiling.

I still agree with that sentiment, but not quite as blindly as in years past. Now I'm starting to realize that while books will certainly survive, they're going to read a lot differently than in decades past. The reason for my change of heart? Someone shoved an iPad in my hands.

The second I first swiped from page to page on the Jesus Tablet, I knew that books and other longform slabs of writing would have to adapt to fit the new medium. That epiphany led me to sign up to write the very first story for The Atavist, a new publisher that delivers media-rich stories for tablets. The tale, about a child coal miner who became the most celebrated jazz musician in Asia (see the man in the lei above), is one that could never have seen the light of day in an earlier era. But it works on the iPad for a variety of reasons: the low cost of publication, the ability to mix in sound and imagery, the liberation from the tyranny of length restrictions.

But while we should all be excited about the potential of the iPad and its forthcoming competitors, let's be honest: the transition is going to be rough at times, and we're going to lose some elements of writing that we've held near and dear to our hearts. (And I say that as someone working very hard on a beloved second book right now.) Gazing into my dusty crystal ball, here's how I see the tabletization of Planet Earth changing what gets set down in (digital) ink:

Rabbit Holes Think for a moment about how social media has changed your reading habits. We've now become accustomed to breaking off from "main texts" in order to check out links that provide context. The beauty of the tablet is that you can create those links inside of a book, rather than forcing people to jump on The Tubes, journey to another site, and possibly never return. Call it the triumph of the endnotes—they will now become integral to the narrative, rather than little extras at the end that only 1 percent of readers actually bother with. But that means writers will have to pay a lot more attention to weaving those notes into their books; they can't be afterthoughts.

Author as Designer Writers traditionally have had very little input on the look of their books. Speaking from personal experience, my only real design contribution to my first book was selecting the photos. That will change with the rise of tablets, however, because the look of the stories is so integral to how readers process them. There's just a lot more malleability to the digital page, and thus a lot more opportunity to bend the form of the story to serve its function. Careful thought has to be given to where images appear, how video is incorporated, and whether a soundtrack will hinder or help the cause.

Liberation from Confusion? A lot of readers get lost in books that feature too many characters, place names, or plot points. Books have usually tried to address these concerns with dramatis personae lists or timelines in the front matter. But those can only do so much, since readers are generally averse to flipping back and forth every time they get confused. On tablets, this isn't really an issue—you can just have inline link to pop-up timelines or character boxes that remind you what's what and who's who. That means much less energy needs to be expended on backtracking to make sure your readers follow. But as noted in Spider-Man's debut, with great power comes great responsibility. Will writers use this feature as an opportunity to engage in cleaner storytelling, or will they just pile on needless complexity?

Dickens' Revenge Great Expectations is one of my all-time favorite books—so much so that I strongly considered naming my son Avenger, after the pint-sized valet that Pip and Herbert hire in London. (The missus wisely said no.) What makes that book work so well is its chapter structure, which keeps the pacing nice and tight. That structure, of course, was the result of necessity—the book was originally published as a weekly serial in a British literary magazine. That model largely disappeared as the publishing business took its current shape, but it looks set to return with the advent of the iPad—though in slightly different form. What I anticipate is authors squirting out chapters in fits and starts, rather than waiting for the entire work to be completed. There's also the potential for linked narratives to come out as separate works on a tablet, then be reissued as a whole with bonus material (i.e. the publishing equivalent of DVD extras).

There are many more thoughts bouncing around my head, such as how tabletization will affect university presses (good!) and what it will mean for cheesy romance novelists (not so good). But in the fine Ta-Nehisi tradition, I think now's the moment when I turn things over to the Horde. Do you agree with my premise that a decade hence, everyone will be reading on screens? And if so, how will that affect the way we write? What will be lost, and what will be gained?

(Image of the late, great Teddy Weatherford, the star of Piano Demon, via The Atavist)

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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