PEN World Voices Panel on the Future of Reading

At the august Instituto Cervantes on Friday I attended a panel titled “Blogs, Twitter, the Kindle: The Future of Reading.” As anyone who’s attended these kinds of panel can attest, it’s most difficult to determine the parameters of the discussion. You don’t want to veer off into apocalyptic pronouncements which kill the dialogue, nor do you want to get so technical (about things like foreign rights for European ebook markets) that you lose the audience.

Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

Ben Schrank moderated admirably, and I enjoyed the panelists’ different perspectives: Thomas Pletzinger played the role of the young gun, approaching writing and technology without preconceived SOPs: “As a writer, you can have many jobs,” he said. He’s working on a novel, a screenplay, and an “audioplay.” He doesn’t see himself in solely the “book business,” in the one box called print books. His ideas can be dropped into multiple boxes. He also mentions that we’re a couple years away from the true interactivity ebook and iPad devices can offer. Right now we’re just scratching the surface.

Ben Okri, who more or less epitomizes the word impassioned, quoted Octavio Paz on Duchamp: “Technology is a criticism of nature.” He believes in the new possibilities of electronic media for free expression, but feels that the printed book is connected to nature while the screen is not. This may be called the “Thingness of Books” argument common to many in the old guard; at least Okri concedes its ineffability without becoming cynical toward new platforms. He also addresses one of my favorite debates: which values are prized in the new platforms? Okri was one of the first to use Twitter to disseminate poetry in the UK. He loved the instantaneous feedback, but noticed he wasn’t putting in as much discipline and patience into crafting his lines as he would for a traditional platform.

Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

Where Okri was cautious, Alberto Ruy-Sánchez was effusive. He loves the spontaneity of Twitter and the experimentation that comes with it: he composed a seven-day travelogue through constant tweeting and afterward realized he’d had a better record of his experience than any previous trip. Ruy-Sánchez said, “Reading is inhabited solitude,” echoing Okri’s point about the different values in print vs. electronic reading. As an experiment, he’d included reader feedback on his first novel in the ebook edition of his second. (This seems a happy medium between the community advantages of ebooks and the solitary reading experience of print books.) He felt some of the new technology was a return to old methods: scrolling through blogs echoes the original method of print reading, before the bound book. He also humorously compared Twitter to the lightning-fast Paris mail system.

Ruy-Sánchez addressed an ongoing problem for foreign writers and the ebook market: geographical barriers between the U.S., the U.K. and the rest of the world tend to be upheld online. It’s very difficult for him to distribute his ebooks (in Spanish or English) to his blog readers, which are truly international.

Sergi Sokolovsky uses his own blog for experimental writing, with one or two specific readers in mind, “like a letter.” If others read and like it, it’s a bonus. He judges a piece successful when it receives no comments: he’s answered all of his audience’s questions (or stunned them speechless).

This in itself is an interesting approach to online writing, almost anathema to most bloggers. Is there a type of online writing handicapped by “comment-bait”? (Maybe. Food for thought.) Sokolovsky said when every new medium of expression begins – opera, video games, film – it uses works of classic literature as a springboard; this attests to the traditional novel’s permanence. On the other hand, he said the internet’s already changed the way we write: every one of us anticipates our missives will be read electronically, not through the printed page.

My takeaway? It’s always fruitful to get the author’s perspective. Bud Parr asked the panel if they’d read a full book on an ereading device, and I was glad to see all of them had; they weren’t reactionary or uninformed.

You can listen to the entire discussion on PEN’s event page.

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1 Comment

Filed under ebooks, industry, reading, socialmedia

One response to “PEN World Voices Panel on the Future of Reading

  1. Hi, Ryan. Nice write-up of the event – I was there, too, and I think you picked up on some of the more significant remarks and their implications. How these things develop, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

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