[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]
An audience participant at one of today's BookCamp Toronto sessions brought my attention to Infinite Summer, a coordinated, communal effort to read David Foster Wallace's giant 1996 novel Infinite Jest this summer (kick-off date: June 21st). I realized that it was a manifestation of something that had been sitting at the back of my head all day, namely that the Nike+ model of social networking is an outstanding example of the kind of things that could be achieved with books. I started making use of Nike+ only a few weeks ago, having finally reignited a teenage enjoyment for running earlier in the year in an attempt to shake off some late-Winter malaise. Part of the appeal for me was the gadgetry -- the little transmitter to attach to your shoe; the excuse to buy a cute little iPod Nano; the seamless integration that lets you listen to your current distance and pace at helpful increments (or whenever you're desperate for the reassurance that surely I must be halfway by now).
But it immediately became clear that the technology was really just bait for people just like me. The gadgets are transparent enabling devices; the truly addictive qualities are the social aspects -- the ability to indulge my personal instincts in a communal setting that can be moderated on whatever level feels most comfortable to me. I can save all of my 'runs' -- my distances and performance -- and make them public, on a one-by-one basis, as I wish. I can see my workout history at a glance. I can design a route and share it with the community. I can set goals for myself, and have the system provide a training scheme to help me meet those goals. I can ask other community members for advice, perspective, and so forth. In short, it lets me take a personal activity -- something that, in truth, can sometimes require some effort to maintain -- and expose it to a huge variety of social prompts to reward me and encourage me to keep it up and develop it. This would be bad, of course, for most addictions, but for exercise it seems like a relatively benign pleasure.
So too for reading. There was a lot of chat at BookCamp Toronto about the music industry: how and whether iTunes, MySpace, etc, provide models for authors and publishers as the terrain of publishing changes with digital technology. The music industry is a great example of what can go wrong if you attempt to fight the inevitable influence of progress and tell your customers that they are wrong to want what they want. But in truth it is a pretty poor example of what publishing could point to as a set of opportunities. That's because the experience of consuming the 'product' is profoundly different. Reading is a much more public, communal activity than listening to music, even though you can piss off a lot more people by listening to music obnoxiously than reading, those Bible-shouting goons in Dundas Square notwithstanding. Reading -- or, more widely, enjoying word-based content -- is something we do in a shared medium (language) and do so against conceptual markers which are continually negotiated in a public setting (was this book good? is what it says true?). So it's completely natural that communal models of the application of technology should be more comfortable fit for reading than those which are more narrowly purchase-based.
And then there are the door-stopper beasts. Who hasn't balked at The Stones of Summer, Underworld, The Adventures of Augie March, Tristram Shandy, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Don Quixote, Moby Dick? Worthy undertakings, all, but certainly far more akin to committing yourself to a marathon than, say, exposing yourself to a famously challenging album. Setting forth on any of these reading adventures as part of a crowd -- a group to set the goal and hold you to it, not by coercion but by exposing you to an additional set of pleasures -- is a much more tolerable idea than having to beat through its dense and overgrown foliage on your own.
This is why book groups succeed, at least when they succeed as reading exercises rather than wine-guzzling gossipy gatherings. Online reading communities stand to offer even more, because they allow participants to filter out those people who are not dedicated to the challenge on the same level as themselves. The academic reader of Under the Volcano -- looking for every stray reference and allusion to other words -- is not me; I was just looking for someone to help me turn the pages. But, equally, that shouldn't be the bored book club participant who would rather use the occasion to chat about their house repairs. Imagine how helpful it would be if you could simply mute that person whose comments about books always irritate because they stem so transparently from their own narrow and self-involved experiences. In online forums, you can do just that. I have seen the technology and it is good.
So -- here's the challenge: an open communal software solution that would let you share reading experiences; commit to goals (personal and shared); establish, share, and suggest training programmes for undertakings large and small (if Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a 5km run, Blood Meridian is the half-marathon and Suttree is the roaring leviathan); share your reading experiences in a social setting that can be adjusted on a case-by-case basis; link up with real-world events and gatherings in your local community; and probably provide some interface with a retail solution that would let you buy or access the book itself (and any related textual, audio, or video materials) in a seamless, instantaneous manner. And to do all of those things in ways that remind you how good it is that reading, uniquely, is both a solitary and a social endeavour.
In short: a slick, open, one-stop, cloud-based reading solution -- something that offers all this and more -- is the dream app for books. And I want to start using it like yesterday.
And with all of that said, I think I might have talked myself into a comparable enterprise for music. I listened to Miles Davis's Bitches Brew for the first time when I was 18, and my ears were entirely unprepared for it. But what if someone had first put together a "Bitches Brew training programme"? It would have taken me through the enjoyable but increasingly stale conventions of hard bop, Miles's experimentation with the Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams quintet, Wayne Shorter's compositional odyssey, the influence of rock's instrumentation, and the breakthrough of In a Silent Way. Then I would have been able to appreciate Bitches Brew as I appreciate it now. Although I still would have been infuriated that Columbia's dodgy CD mastering made me buy it twice.