Our concepts of literature and writing are directly connected to the formats that have become natural to us. It used to be that books (with few or no pictures) were a baseline kind of literacy. That is less the case now. Not only are books filled with pictures, but they tend to exist in a thickly mediated environment, much of which is electronic or at least highly influenced by things digital. Even my son’s math book interrupts itself and sends him to go check out an online tutorial before resuming his paper-and-pencil problem set. Now that electronic means of both producing and consuming writing are competing with traditional paper modes, how will this affect Mormon literary habits?
New formats shape how we use and think about what we read and what we write. I notice this a great deal with my reading of scripture. Reading the Bible or the Book of Mormon in their paper form gives them a certain context that is missing when I read them from the scriptures application on my iPhone. Reading them on my iPhone allows me to readily check footnotes (full text, instantly) and so I tend to investigate those footnotes and study aids much more when using the iPhone application. Consequently, when I am studying a given topic (say, for a lesson or talk), I tend to use my scripture application. But when I am doing my daily reading, I don’t tend to use that format. I still use the old red pencil, highlighting passages of note, and remembering those in part by where on the page they fall. That passage in Abraham about premortal spirits? It’s easy to find because it’s split across Facsimile #2 on the bottom of a right-side page and the top of a left-side page.
Actually, I’ve gravitated more and more toward listening to my scriptures in audio format as I commute. I consume a great deal of audio content while driving, exercising, or walking about. It has been an easy way to put the study of scriptures into my routine by listening to them in spoken word format. But even that format tends to change my approach. For example, when a particularly interesting passage comes along, I tend to reach for that 30-second replay button. I’ve found myself memorizing passages by looping back repeatedly. I want to know a certain passage better, feel it, so as I listen and try to memorize it, it tends to sink in. This has its uses. I also have the Spanish audio version at hand, and will often listen to the same chapter in Spanish right after hearing it in English. I suppose I could have done so with paper versions of the scriptures, but I don’t. I am getting accustomed to finding and using content streams in electronic form that sometimes parallel but often diverge from the traditional reading experience from books.
We are entering a world of multi-modal literacy. It isn’t simply that texts are being digitized or distributed through the Internet; it’s that electronic formats are changing what we read (how we find and share content); how we read (which aspects of message or form we pay attention to, including images, sound, movies, and links); when we read (often in smaller snatches of time or in tandem with other activities and not so much in isolation); where we read (lots of places we wouldn’t or couldn’t open a book); and just how much we ingest and digest various texts, images, and sounds.
This week Apple used its media might to make a grand entrance into the ebook reader market with its iPad. The culture of e-reading has not yet had large adoption, but it has taken root very firmly. Those of us who have tried reading long-form literature from a desktop computer screen long ago dismissed the idea of a computing device becoming a first choice for pleasure reading, but the early adopters of ebooks with their Amazon Kindles started to change the tide. I read that a very large percentage of all books sold through Amazon books are sold as ebooks, wirelessly and instantly transmitted to the Kindle reader. And of course, that’s much of the charm of this kind of reading. It isn’t just that you have a portable device that can carry hundreds of books; it’s that you can download sample chapters and instantly buy books. Kindle has truly changed the game. (For additional thoughts, see “How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write” from Steven Johnson of the Wall Street Journal).
The iPad ups the ante with its beautiful color screen and its coming iBook store, which will be seamlessly integrated into Apple’s media selling franchise on iTunes, now counting its downloads in billions. Apple’s is just the latest of a host of ebook readers now available. And with school districts pressed for cash looking to cut costs, we can anticipate that the e-textbook market will jumpstart the adoption of the e-reading culture. These devices promise interesting and novel uses of media integration. The Kindle has had an audio option that will read your book to you; lots of publishers are looking to integrate pictures, videos, and links into these ebooks. And the more that we all become accustomed to being networked and plugged in, the more antiquated any reading experience will be that does not include some kind of integration with web links and social media.
What has not yet appeared on ebook readers but is inevitable is social filtering and real-time recommendations. Imagine getting a notice on your tablet computing device that a certain friend or famous author is reading a certain book, RIGHT NOW, or learning that 15 people in your facebook circle of friends have all recommended a given novel that you haven’t touched yet. The social networks are already in place; there are services like Library Thing and Goodreads giving us social filters for books already. Amazon provides automated recommendations based on purchases and publicly available wishlists (here’s mine). It is very possible that in the near future the reason you buy that Kindle or iPad won’t be a preference for reading on a digital device per se, but a preference to be part of a socially mediated experience with reading that just isn’t as possible with physical books or book clubs (as enduring as these will remain for other purposes).
We will also see a big difference in the creation and distribution of texts, stories, and literature. Sure, the big publishers are reformatting for ebooks, and LDS publishers will follow suit sometime, but as the Kindle has already demonstrated, you can bypass the whole “literary industrial complex” (great phrase, Stephen Windwalker) and get your own works piped to those e-readers that are now making their way into millions of readers’ hands so quickly. Dang, you might even be able to steer at least a few readers to your stash of personal poetry. Who knows? E-readers aren’t going to operate like Web1.0 with its static archive of passive pages stuck in information cul-de-sacs. Content becomes more dynamic when tied to mobile devices and social networks. Mormons are very social types. Will their media be so, or more so, with the coming of e-book readers?
How do you think all these new modes of reading and writing, consuming and creating, will affect the way Mormons read and write or what they value as literature? Will it change what or when Mormons create and share or how they express themselves within or beyond LDS circles? Does the ebook close the distance between Mormon publishing and Mormon blogging? Does it make LDS film a closer cousin to LDS novels because they may be consumed in closer quarters? I’ll venture that the answer is not simply that we’ll see Deseret Book’s content reformatted for the Kindle or iPad (though that will be interesting). I’m guessing it’s going to mean a lot more than getting every copy of the Millennial Star or Women’s Exponent into an easily downloadable format, or reading the priesthood or Relief Society manual from a device. What do you predict?