Critical Mass

Adventures in E-Reading: Guest Post from Wendy Smith

By Wendy Smith

Here is the latest in our second series of guest posts on the next decade in book culture here (read the first  here). Our question: How are you handling the rise of the e-book? Are you reading on Kindle, the Sony Reader, the Vook, have you reserved an iPad?  Are you buying e-books? Reading e-galleys? And how's it working out for you? Let us know your quibbles, quirks, happy and not so happy adventures in e-reading. This just in from NBCC member Wendy Smith, a finalist for this year's Balakian award for excellence in reviewing.

My personal experience, like Ray Abernathy’s, has reinfored the clarion words in Mike Fischer’s post. After losing my bread-and-butter editing gig at Kirkus Reviews (and attending Sree’s seminar at the general meeting) I began a blog. I have kept a pen-and-paper diary for 30 years, and although it has some personal material, a good deal of it was about books I was reading and theater I had seen. I bought into the “build your brand” theory and began keeping my diary online. It’s an interesting experience, and I’m not ready to abandon it yet, but writing things that will (possibly) be seen by others is a very different project from sitting down at night to reflect on the events of the day and let that take me where it will in a private diary. I found myself thinking time and again, “I’ll have to leave out the names,” or ,“I’d better save that for my personal diary.” What I write online too often seems perfunctory or not entirely honest, and it’s also not a finished, revised piece of work like a review intended for publication. There are brilliant blogs, and I may yet figure out a way to reach (or at least aspire) to that level, but right now the form is not enriching me or my work. I got a lot more out of rereading Vanity Fair (the book, not the magazine) on vacation!

Reading and writing are the currency of the online world; my son and his teenage friends communicate almost entirely by instant messaging, and although I may not be crazy about their prose style (lolz), it’s certainly less annoying to parents—and more private for them–than the endless phone calls of my adolescence. (And it sharpens their typing skills: When my son watches me peck away with four fingers, he comments, “Mom, the way you type is scary.”)  I don’t see mass illiteracy hovering on the horizon, nor am I worried about the future of books, defined as full-length texts in print. The dissemination of people’s ideas has survived the shift from scrolls to handwritten codices to printed books very nicely, thank you, and it will survive a move into Kindles and Vooks. I personally prefer to read a bound volume on paper, and I believe many people will continue to choose that format, but content is what matters.

It’s the content issue that worries me sometimes. The endless chatter of the online world, the instant gratification of writing a comment and hitting “submit” do not encourage reflection, let alone editing. It’s become a truism that not only is everyone a critic, but now everyone has a publishing platform, and whenever we professionals comment on the typos and poor grammar (let alone the snottiness and shallowness) of many online “reviews,” we’re accused—with some justification—of snobbery and turf-guarding. Well, of course I think that my experience, judgment and taste are worth more than those of someone who writes “this book sucks” on Amazon. I get paid for my opinions because I can back them up with textual evidence, and I spend quite a lot of time shaping them into a readable, informative review. However, any time I am especially repelled by the Know-Nothing yahooism of self-appointed online critics (don’t miss Jeannette Demain’s hilarious “Amazon reviewers think this masterpiece sucks” in Salon), I remind myself that in centuries past it was argued that novels were the diversion of shopgirls and a danger to innocent youth’s morals, that working people were insufficiently refined to appreciate fine art as leisured aristocrats did. If you believe in democratic culture, then you simply have to come to terms with online culture.

The electronic world has its perils for anyone trying to carve out the solitary space necessary for thoughtful writing—and reading. So what else is new? Change is hard, and not all changes are for the better. (Look at our political culture over the past three decades.) But change cannot be stopped, it can only be grappled with. I may not find a way to write a good blog, but there are good blogs. I don’t believe that mindless online meanderings will entirely overwhelm carefully considered, well edited essays—but I could be wrong.