Flaws in the Friendly Internet

The publishing topic of the week seems to be reconsidering the Book Review: in Bookforum, Michael Dirda questions the bestseller list, and n+1 takes the contrarian’s view against book reviews in general. (If not exactly food for thought, then at least Chex Mix for thought.)

Probably the best thing to come out of these discussions is Macy Halford’s post “Too Personal” in The Book Bench. She notes the dominant theory behind online media discovery and consumption is one of social circles and influencers—attendees of publishing or tech conferences in the past few years have heard this ad nauseum. Halford questions whether this is effective when it comes to recommending books. I certainly love Alex Garland’s novels, but that doesn’t mean I care about what he’s reading. Conversely, several of my close friends have very different—in some cases oppositional–tastes in fiction than I do. It should go without saying that bringing all of us together online isn’t going to change this. Instead I’ll just know more about books I never plan on reading.

“We can’t know Wallace Shawn through his book recommendations; we can’t really know him at all unless we actually know him. I’m O.K. with this, since I can read Wallace Shawn and experience his writing in his plays and knowing him might imperil my ability to enjoy him: all writing happens at a remove, at a distance that can be shrunk only so much by the various technologies we erect to create a sense of proximity.” -Macy Halford

I grant there is an enormous amount of value elsewhere to the media influence of social networks. Short films, graphic design, and music come to mind. But for whatever reason, books feel like a round peg in the square hole of Web 2.0. This may be rooted in Halford’s comment about “a distance that can be shrunk only so much.” There will and should be a stopgap between the writer and the reader. This same stopgap may act as a kind of uncanny valley between reader and bookseller/reader/critic/friend, such that we can never create through technology the effectiveness of in-person recommendations (or, if you prefer, real-world handselling).

This line of thought should be divided and considered along the writer-reader exchange and, separately, the reader-reader exchange. I admit to still feeling a little muddled about all this. But I thought I’d put it out to see what your thoughts are.


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