Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Ideal Digital Reading Situation

The British Council runs an international programme supporting upcoming "cultural leaders", rather a big term for youngish movers and shakers in the arts. This year the participant from Germany is Nikola Richter. Nikola has a lot of energy and ideas and projects to do with writing in the here and now, and is also a great person. I'm toning my praise down a bit because I'm going to see her again this evening and there's nothing quite as embarrassing as meeting someone you've just gushed about.

So as part of the programme, Nikola organised a kind of mini conference with the above title, inviting a room full of people from Germany, the UK, Sweden, Holland and Argentina to talk about reading and publishing and bookselling in the digital age. It was fabulous and I'm still rather inspired and rather wish it could have gone on another day. By nature of the occasion, we didn't reach any conclusions at all, but we did (or I did) think a great deal about things like how to get books (digital and print) to people, how the Internet brings readers together and changes literary form, piracy and ownership, real and virtual discussion culture, and many other things.

I talked for five minutes about "collaborative reading" and thought it might be good to put my thoughts down in a more coherent form here, for the participants and for anyone else who might be interested. Our talks were kind of slo-mo pecha cucha, five minutes using five pictures, but I won't include my pictures here for various reasons.

1. (Picture of my dad reading sleeve notes in the early 1960s)
Collaborative reading is a term I made up, meaning joint social reading for a particular purpose beyond showing off sharing your library. Here, my dad is enjoying a lost multimedia experience, reading about music while listening to it, and he's already reading for a particular purpose - to enhance his enjoyment and understanding of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Of course he may also have been showing off his record collection - although he looks immersed in his reading material, we don't know how posed the photo was and he certainly looks quite the wannabe beatnik.

2. (Picture of an And Other Stories reading group meeting in Berlin)
The AOS reading groups project is an example of collaborative reading enabled by the internet. We read (in our case) German-language books with a view to recommending one of them for translation and publication by AOS. Of course the internet has brought together the otherwise isolated English-speaking freaks interested in and capable of reading foreign-language writing, and here we're trying to harness that by crowdsourcing the book selection process, if you like. You can read more about the nitty-gritty in Amanda DaMarco's article for PP. Essentially though, in a first attempt via LibraryThing we found that a purely digital discussion didn't work for us – no conversation ensued, people felt no pressure to read the books and so comparisons didn't work. What did work was a mix of real-life meetings in Berlin and London, partially linked via Skype, and internet comments on the individual titles via the website. And of course digital reading is ideal as pdfs or epubs remove the difficulties of distributing books to the ten to twenty people involved.

Other examples that fit my definition of collaborative reading are pepysdiary.com and tailoredtexts.com, where readers help each other to understand difficult (foreign-language) texts via virtual margin notes.

3. (Picture of 50 Shades cover)
The British Centre for Literary Translation is also now testing out a platform for collaborative translation via newwriting.net. And for me, translation is an act of reading, interpreting and re-rendering. It's difficult to do as a group, but it is possible and can be very rewarding. That formula of reading/watching, interpreting and re-rendering also applies to fan fiction à la 50 Shades.

4. (Picture of China Miéville)
At the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference, China Miéville picked up that fanfiction topic in his talk on the future of the novel. He spoke about books becoming less closed than ever, with readers being able to take an active approach to them. Two quotes: "Anyone who wants to shove their hands into a book and grub about in its innards, add to and subtract from it, and pass it on, will, in this age of distributed text, be able to do so without much difficulty, and some are already starting." ... and ... "The worst anxiety is not that the interfering public will ruin your work if they muck about with it, or that they'll write a terrible novel, but that they'll improve it, or write a great one. And once in a rare while, some of them will. How wonderful that will be."

5. (Picture of Star Trek communicator)
I think China Miéville's "fanfication of fiction" - besides being a tongue-twister that gets very embarrassing in a room full of German-speakers - is a phenomenon still very much in China Miéville's head, but I do hope that life will imitate fiction, rather in the way that mobile phones were developed and designed partly to help us imitate Captain Kirk. What I hope is that through collaborative reading, translation and writing processes, we as readers can get creatively involved with texts and arrive at even greater diversity in the literary world.

1 comment:

Nikola Richter said...

Thank you, Katy! I will also write something about the workshop on my blog soon.