By Tom Peters | Samuel Johnson About 250 years ago, soon after his dictionary of the English language had been published, Dr. Samuel Johnson was asked by a woman how the incorrect definition of a pastern had crept into the final, published product. According to James Boswell's biography of Johnson, "…instead of making an elaborate defence, as she expected, he at once answered, 'Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.'"

If the educated world ever held the belief that a dictionary should be written entirely by an individual, we have long since abandoned the notion—despite Johnson's Herculean effort. We also have come to expect other types of books and documents, such as textbooks and scholarly articles, to be group-writing efforts. Books that are little more than a compilation of contributed chapters soon reveal themselves as such, and for scholarly articles, despite a long list of titled authors, the reader often suspects that only one of those authors did the lion's share of the actual writing.

But what about other types of books, such as novels and monographs? I think I am not alone in still clinging to the belief that the best books usually are emanations from a single consciousness that weighs thoughts, experiences, and research from a variety of sources, then creates a cohesive utterance with a unique perspective and style.

Writing is perceived as primarily a solitary pursuit, with group-writing activities relegated largely to parlor games, executive retreats, and other ice-breaking situations.

Most of us also still harbor the idea that reading is primarily a solitary pursuit. The individual reads and ponders the text, then perhaps at some later time engages in a conversation about the book with colleagues, classmates, or acquaintances in classrooms, at conferences, in online chat rooms, or at coffee houses, which seem to be as popular in the early twenty-first century as they were in the mid-eighteenth.

Changes in the way we write and read could undermine the solitariness of these activities. I must admit that the snippetization of published works, which has created fear and loathing in a wide variety of literate adults—including Michael Gorman and John Updike (you can listen to an audio recording of Updike's recent BookExpo America speech at bookexpocast.com/?p=12, where snippets are mentioned approximately ten minutes into his speech, as well as late)—really does not cause me much concern. Writers were writing to be snipped long before Google could "googoo" and "gaga."

But the prospect of an end to the era when writing and reading are understood primarily as solitary activities causes me some uneasiness—as a writer, a reader, and a librarian. The current rage for social networking is well and good, but the solitude of reading and writing are good things, too.
Stack of books
The sense of an end of an era also gave Updike reason to pause approximately seventeen minutes into his BEA address. He portrayed the reading of a printed book as an encounter, in silence, between two minds—of the individual writer and the individual reader. Updike described these old-school writers and readers as "…surly hermits, refusing to come out and play in the electronic sunshine…."

If Johnson's dictionary had been a wiki, the error about the pastern would not have survived long under the scrutiny of readers, and Boswell's wonderful snippet of conversation would never have happened, because the woman reader would have been empowered to correct the erroneous definition.

The future of most books, however, is probably not complete wikification, where no principal author of the work is put forth or inferred, but rather one in which the channels of communication between author and reader are more open, varied, and bidirectional. It's more than just communication, because the author will become a more empowered reader of comments and criticism of the book, able to take some of them not only to heart or to the law, as each case warrants, but also to modify the book with authority based upon the comments and criticism of readers. Like a long-married couple, the two personalities and roles of writers and readers, which seemed clearer during the long honeymoon of the print era, will become mixed in the digital.

We may need a new name for this creature. Wreader is the first thing that comes to my solitary mind as I write this, but feel free to leave your ideas as a comment. As librarians, we need to come to the aid of this wreader, offering him or her collections that lack all of the clearly defined edges and stasis of bound books, but that still facilitate the profound, pristine interaction between two—or more—minds.
Technorati tags: , , , , , , , , , ,