Review of Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture

August 2, 2013

[Note: Usually I review crime fiction here, but this time I'm reviewing a work of serious and heavy-duty scholarship. I've been following the work of the Beyond the Book project for a few years, now, so was excited to learn a book was on its way. It has now been released by Routledge. It will be helpful for my sabbatical project, though it's also a little intimidating. These authors did a lot of work!]

This book is a thorough and thoughtful analysis of a vast amount of qualitative and quantitative material gathered in the course of an ambitious three-year project to explore what the authors call “mass reading events” – social/cultural practices designed to bring groups much larger than the traditional book club together to read the same book. Though these events have grown popular since Seattle kicked things off in the 1990s, they haven’t been widely studied (other than Oprah’s Book Club, one form of the mass reading event.). Danielle Fuller (University of Birmingham) and DeNel Rehberg Sedo (Mount St. Vincent University) make up for that by conducting an ambitious research program in three countries (US, Canada, UK) and writing a detailed, probing look at the results. Though it may seem a highly specialized phenomenon to study, it’s one that gives the authors a chance to “interrogate the social and material relations among the reading industry’s agents and agencies” (18).

“Shared reading” they write “is both a social process and a social formation” (27). In the first chapter, “Reading,” they review the history of shared reading, including literary societies, the Great Books program, and Elizabeth Long’s research on book groups. They critique the text-focus of much reader-response theory and point out that there is a gap in how we think about reading: though the reader as the object of study has been historically situated, “there is little attention to the reader-reader interaction and no sense of the ways that nonacademic readers might employ various reading practices as part of their everyday lives as social beings” (39). Their methodology was an attempt to use mass reading events as a platform for focusing on the social experience of the reader and the interaction between book, reader, the book industry, mass media, and how those all intersect in events focused on reading as a community event.

Chapters on the ways television and radio have promoted shared reading prove an opportunity to see how reading books is framed as enlightening, empowering, self-actualizing, and entertaining, all at once. I found it particularly interesting to see national differences and similarities between the U.S. (Oprah) with the U.K. (Richard and Judy) and Canada (which has a particularly interesting situation, needing to promote local cultural production while saturated with books from the UK and US; the CBC’s Canada Reads program embodies those contradictions). These chapters would be of interest to anyone curious about how mass media work in these three countries. The cultural politics of the BBC and CBC are complex as they accommodate consumer culture and neo-liberal assumptions about the economic drivers of human social behavior.

The fourth chapter is on money – the complex dance between commercial interests (both in selling books but also in attaching the cultural value of reading to other interests. These events seek sponsors, and the sponsors seek “useful symbolic capital” (126). Again, though the topic of mass reading events may seem rather narrow, it’s a lens for looking at the relationship between consumer capitalism and cultural production in the late age of print. “Ideologically,” the authors argue, “culture ceases to be valued primarily as a ‘public good,’ and instead becomes subject to the rules of domestic and international marketplaces . . . National and supra-national legislation about trade, monopolies and mergers, copyright, and intellectual property all played their part in the commercialization of culture” (130). There is a mixing of culture’s purpose that substitutes measures of utility and popularity for social well being. The authors contrast Richard Florida’s vision of culture as an entrepreneurial economic activity that provides levers for social change without relying on state intervention. The mass reading event then becomes a vehicle for shared consumption that has a a patina of “good for you” social capital. This intersection of motives also shows up in the different ways the NEA’s “Big Read” program and the IMLS’s involvement in it make the case for reading. One is more geared to the text as a work of literature that has transformative benefits, the other is more accepting of a wider range of reading tastes and the value of many kinds of reading. The authors argue that the “one book one community” model has migrated through these English-speaking nations because it fits with dominant neoliberal approaches to cultural value. It promises betterment without threatening the status quo.

A chapter on the people who put these programs together is another way to unpack the multiple motives of community reading programs, mixing a social mission with a celebration of celebrity culture, reading as a spur for social change and a way of bringing people into the fold of normative reading practices. Nancy Pearl’s rise to “superstar librarian” status is sketched out, a different path than that of her colleague who continued to work as a librarian. She tells a moving story of reading a novel about Japanese internment during World War II and how powerful it was to have elderly internees recognized by the community. (I dare you to read that passage with a dry eye! It’s a powerful emotional argument for how reading together can actually promote understanding.) The amount of donated labor and its cost is addressed, and the British Get Into Reading program is described, offering a different way to tie mass reading events to social change. This program doesn’t market events in search of an audience or work through traditional literary channels such as schools and libraries, but takes the program into community-based social services programs for immigrants, asylum seekers, the homeless, and others who might not identify with commercial literary culture. Further, it focuses on “quality” or classic literature in the belief that it shouldn’t be only enjoyed by the privileged. In some ways, it reminds me of the Great Books program in the US, but with a bigger emphasis on outreach to the disenfranchised. This exploration of cultural workers who promote reading “demonstrates how gender, generation, and geography shape the reproduction of traditional values about book reading as socially and morally transformative activity, as well as influencing more holistic, therapeutic, and creative ideals of the social change, pleasure, and relationships that shared reading can inspire” (204).

The final two chapters, “Reader” and “Book” explore what readers experience when participating in mass reading events and how they experience books as material objects. They use the term “citizen readers” to convey people who “read to belong just as they feel that they themselves belong to reading as an activity located in a place, along with others who share the same interest” (211). Sharing reading is an opportunity for them to share their own feelings and to promote a sense of belonging. It can also provide a personal link to authors who participate as the author shares stories about their lives. There is always the possibility that this sense of community is limited and may silence or exclude people. (A discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird in the south attracted a primarily white audience, for example.) At the same time, such events can “bring attention to issues of racism, cultural difference, and social injustice” at a time when “public forums for discussion are increasingly rare, and people’s agency over their material realities has declined” (242). One Book events allow participants a chance to experience the feeling of “being and belonging.”

The authors have lived up to their promise to interrogate “the paradox of promoting a prestige-laden activity on a large scale and via mass media [that] opens up a productive critical pathway for thinking about the ways that cultural value is brokered within ‘creative’ communities” (258). Though it’s limited to one kind of reading activity in three countries that have a lot in common, this is a remarkably in-depth study that teases out many insights into what reading means to readers, how book culture combines prestige with consumerism, how the radical potential for growth through literature is entangled with a conservative desire to belong and be comforted, and what role books and reading have in mass media and popular culture. This book is an important and insightful interdisciplinary contribution to reading studies.


happy independence day

July 4, 2013

Like independence? Do something about it.

fourth amendment


June Pick: Norwegian by Night

June 30, 2013

At 4MA, my reading addiction support group, we are collecting our mid-year “tops and bottoms” – the five top reads of the first half of the month and the five that were at the bottom. Most of us have trouble stopping with only five tops and have fewer than five at the bottom, because we’re pretty good at choosing what to read next. My tops so far this year are

  • Mick Herron DEAD LIONS
  • Tana French BROKEN HARBOR
  • Derek Miller NORWEGIAN BY NIGHT
  • David Mark ORIGINAL SKIN
  • Anre Dahl BAD BLOOD

Though I’ve already reviewed Norwegian by Night on another blog, I thought I would repost it here with minor changes as I adopt the practice of some other book bloggers of posting a review every month of the book that made the strongest impression. So, here goes . . .

Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

Though this book isn’t the usual Scandinavian crime fiction that I track on a blog, Derek Miller is an American (though currently a resident of Oslo) and his novel is not exactly crime fiction (though there is a crime). It’s one of those books that defies classification. But I recommend it wholeheartedly. 

Sheldon Horowitz is a New York Jew, a man who has repaired watches all his life but can’t quite keep time any longer. He’s in his eighties and his memory is . . . well, let’s say it’s Norwegian by Nightinventive. He has reluctantly gone to live with his granddaughter and her Norwegian husband in Oslo. The stories he tells about his experiences as a sniper in the Korean War don’t seem to match historical fact and his granddaughter thinks it’s a symptom of dementia. Either that, or he’s seeking attention with weirdly logical illogic – or possibly both.

One afternoon, after his granddaughter and her husband have left the house, Sheldon hears  a commotion in the apartment upstairs. This is not unusual; the Balkan immigrants living upstairs have had their arguments before, but this time it’s different – more violent, more ominous. When he hears the woman come down the stairs, Shelden looks through the peephole and sees her hesitate on the landing, trapped between the rage of her husband and a suspicious car idling outside.

They did this with us, too, he thinks, looking through the peephole. And then the pity vanishes and is replaced by the indignation that lives just beneath the surface of his daily routines and quick retorts.

The Europeans. Almost all of them, at one time or another. They looked out their peepholes – their little fishy eyes staring out through bulging lenses, watching someone else’s flight – as their neighbors clutched their children to their chests while armed thugs chased them through buildings as though humanity itself was being extinguished. Behind the glass, some were afraid, some felt pity, others felt murderous and delighted.

All were safe because of what they were not. They were not, for example, Jews.

(There’s something wonderfully dry and disarming about that “for example” that somehow pulls the pin on the whole passage.) He opens the door and sees she has a child clinging to her. He motions them inside. When the man starts to break down the door, the woman pushes the boy toward him and he hides with him in a closet as the violence continues. When it grows quiet, he finds the woman dead; the suspicious car prowls by as he thinks about what to do. He’s afraid that if he goes to the authorities, they will think he’s a doddering old fool and hand the boy over to his father. So he takes it upon himself to protect the child, leaving behind a quote from Huckleberry Finn, setting off on a journey while the police and his granddaughter try to figure out what’s going on.

I was reminded of Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog, though only after the fact. Both Atkinson and Miller are able to take some aspects of crime fiction – violence and the ripple effect is has on the people around it, the balance between causality and sheer randomness, the way that past and present are layered together in a single identity, the narrative skill to keep momentum as the story weaves back and forth in time, the clarity of characters fully imagined. Like Atkinson, Miller is funny and touching and irreverent and yet respectful of his characters and his readers. He considers age and the toll that grief and guilt can take on a life, on the cultural differences between Norway and New York, the stresses that immigration brings to Scandinavian countries that have both a sense of social duty and inexperience with cultural difference; he writes about masculinity and the scars inflicted by war and even touches on Norway’s treatment of Jews during the occupation and how much we erase from history.

Did I mention it’s incredibly funny? It is – in a gentle, sardonic, life-affirming way. And when it takes off at a gallop you can’t turn the pages fast enough. I suspect this will be on my top ten list for the year.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book. I’m very glad I read it.


A Bit of Speculative Fiction

April 27, 2013

This morning I submitted a fellowship application. Since there is a whopping 7 percent acceptance rate, I’m considering it something of a cross between a lottery ticket and a short work of speculative fiction.

The government site used to collect the application was a trip – instead of a web form it uses a baroque Adobe Acrobat form, which got extremely offended if I used the back space key and would make me start all over. I got quite good at filling it out since I did it five times. But whew, it’s finally complete.

One of the challenges was describing the project in under 1,000 characters including spaces. I squeezed it into a mere 983:

Millions of readers around the world participate in online communities focused on sharing their reading experiences. These communities leave textual traces that suggest what readers get out of reading for pleasure, how their reading experiences benefit from social interactions, how readers form interpretive communities that transcend national boundaries, and how informal critical communities participate in the formation of popular literary tastes. Because these communities attract readers from many countries, they are a rich site for the exploration of similarities and differences in national book cultures. I will study communities formed around the crime fiction genre using mixed methods and will make my findings available as I work in order to explore new models for making humanities scholarship accessible to readers, writers, librarians, and publishers, as well as to scholars interested in genre fiction, fan culture, social reading practices, and popular literacy.

In case you take a nerdy interest in this sort of thing, here’s the selective bibliography that was part of the application – there’s quite a lot of intriguing stuff coming out on the subject of social reading experiences these days. I had to keep it short, but there’s plenty more in a Zotero folder.

  • Bérubé, Michael, Hester Blum, Christopher Castiglia, and Julia Spicher Kasdorf. “Community Reading and Social Imagination.” PMLA 125.2 (March 2010): 418–425.
  • Elsayed, Amany M. “Arab Online Book Clubs: A Survey.” IFLA Journal 36.3 (October 2010): 235–250.
  • Fuller, Danielle, and DeNel Rehberg Sedo. Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture, 2013.
  • Griswold, Wendy, Elizabeth Lenaghan, and Michelle Naffziger. “Readers as Audiences.” In Handbook of Media Audiences. Oxford: Wiley, 2011, 17–40.
  • Gruzd, Anatoliy, and DeNel Rehberg Sedo. “#1b1t: Investigating Reading Practices at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century.” Mémoires Du Livre 3.2 (2012).
  • Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
  • Lang, Anouk, ed. From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century, 2012.
  • Long, Elizabeth. Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • Nakamura, Lisa. “‘Words With Friends’: Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads.” Preprint of an article forthcoming in PMLA, 2013.
  • Peplow, D. “‘Oh, I’ve Known a Lot of Irish People’: Reading Groups and the Negotiation of Literary Interpretation.” Language and Literature 20.4 (December 9, 2011): 295–315.
  • Rehberg Sedo, DeNel. “Readers in Reading Groups: An Online Survey of Face-to-Face and Virtual Book Clubs.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 9.1 (March 2003): 66–90.
  • Rehberg Sedo, DeNel, ed. Reading Communities from Salons to Cyberspace. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
  • Steiner, Ann. “Personal Readings and Public Texts: Book Blogs and Online Writing about Literature,” Culture Unbound 2 (2010): 471–494.
  • Striphas, Ted. The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control. New York: Columbia UP, 2011
  • Swann, J., and D. Allington. “Reading Groups and the Language of Literary Texts: a Case Study in Social Reading.” Language and Literature 18.3 (August 18, 2009): 247–264.

Stupid Computer!!!

photo that expresses my frustration with forms courtesy of f1uffster

 


culture shock: when Goodreads and LibraryThing collide

March 30, 2013

It has been fascinating to see people respond to the acquisition of the largest book-focused social network, GoodReads, by Amazon, the largest book-focused anything. (In fact, it’s so large, books are just one of the many, many products the company sells, but bookselling was its first focus; the company has had a huge impact on both book culture and book commerce. This acquisition is one of many that have consolidated Amazon’s influence in the publishing world.)

gr

If you are deciding which site to use, Book Riot published a thorough and smart comparison of the two sites last July (see part 1 and part 2). I have been a LibraryThing member since about 2007 and started using it primarily to replace a kludgy homemade website where I had been posting book reviews. I tried out Goodreads soon after it launched, but didn’t want to maintain catalogs on two sites, and preferred the familiar layout and the business model of LibraryThing. (Rather than rely on targeted advertising and magic venture capital dust, it charges a small lifetime membership fee of $25.00 and repackages reviews and tags as an enhancement for library catalogs. The terms of service is actually very similar to Goodreads’, but I don’t think Tim Spaulding would sell his company to Amazon, and I trust him not to turn my reading tastes into marketing opportunities.)

lt

For many Goodreads members, the acquisition came as a rude surprise and many who are concerned about the growing power of Amazon began to explore competitors. The response is very like the way people reacted when Google announced it was mothballing its RSS feed Reader: betrayal, outrage, anxiety about the size and power of a single corporation, and a crowdsourced scramble to find alternatives.  Once people have invested their own creative labor into a site, have woven it into their daily routine, and have established social relationships there, it’s a rude shock to realize that it’s not actually theirs at all.

This scramble to test alternatives has also exposed many of the things people want in a platform built around sharing a love of books – and what happens when groups and their established cultures collide.  Tim Spaulding, LibraryThing’s founder and owner of a majority share, started a discussion about what the acquisition means for LibraryThing. Along the way, many feathers were ruffled and some were soothed. Spaulding wrote “I find Goodreads too pushy on the social side, too cavalier about user data and–on average–not as intellectual as LibraryThing can be.” Not surprisingly, some Goodreads members who were checking out the site took offense. In the ensuing discussion, some LibraryThing loyalists dug the hole deeper, while others tried to repair the damage. I’ve seen similar behavior in an online book discussion group in which members sometimes disparage another group in order to express what they like about the group they are in. Since these groups include overlapping memberships, feelings get hurt and members feel torn between the social codes of one group and those of another.

Both Goodreads and LibraryThing are a wonderful antidote to the claim that nobody reads and the book is dead. Both sites attract avid readers – millions of them – and offer opportunities to create personal book collections and share reviews. Both sites have extensive social features and ongoing conversations around books. Both involve members in volunteer work that improves the site.

But they have significantly different flavors. LibraryThing is more focused on individual members’ catalogs, drawing on book metadata from many sources, making it useful for those who collect pre-ISBN books or non-US, non-English titles. (There are over 700 bibliographic databases from which to draw data, including national libraries across the globe.)  Goodreads is much more social and contemporary and is designed to enable Facebook-like group formation and socializing around books.

Within each site, communities coalesce and thrive, but the threaded discussion at LibraryThing takes a back seat visually to the cataloging of books. LibraryThing is more like a library, with a major focus on cataloging, less on finding the next book to read (or purchase) – though it has a sturdy recommendation engine. The company also shares with libraries a healthy respect for privacy, a fairly knee-jerk attitude to freedom of speech, and a culture of transparency (up to a point, given it is a privately-held company with no interest in making its code open source). Goodreads is more like Facebook – funded by venture capital, very large, and reliant on the data its users provide to serve up targeted advertising and to gather a spectacularly large and detailed set of book-related data to monetize.

One other distinction that seems to have cropped up as these cultures collide is where authors and publishers fit in. Goodreads tolerates a lot of marketing and is much more attractive to publishers, authors, and … well, Amazon. LibraryThing has a welcome mat for authors and publishers, but there are distinct social boundaries that the community has set beyond which marketing and promotion is unwelcome. The terms of service states clearly, “”Do not use LibraryThing as an advertising medium. Egregious commercial solicitation is forbidden. No matter how great your novel, this does apply to authors.”

The discussions at LibraryThing about what the Goodreads sale means have been eye-opening, both because I’ve learned a lot about what other members get out of the site and what features it offers that I’ve never stumbled across, but also because of what readers say about their sense of community and what they want from a social reading experience. Some of these desires are technical (a mobile version, for example) and some are functional (preferring one type of social interaction over another) or aesthetic (with “dead salmon color” coming up a lot, but also graphics versus text and other design preferences).

But some of the differences are tribal, and those are the ones that are the most interesting to me.

EDITED to add: This LibraryThing blog post articulates what makes LibraryThing LibraryThing. The way it was composed is very consistent with the company’s nature – it was open to all members to contribute ideas (on a non-personal-data-gobbling site), and Tim Spaulding did the final edit.


sabbatical dreams

March 9, 2013

socialcollider_003

So, if my sabbatical proposal is accepted, it won’t happen until the 2014-15 academic year, but I had fun outlining a project that I’m actually excited about (and think I may still be excited about 18 months from now). I want to immerse myself in online reading communities.

But you already do that, you say? Yes, I do. But this would be my excuse to do more of it, and to look a bit more closely at how readers talk about books on a variety of platforms and think about what this means for readers, authors, libraries, and publishers in a world where reading is global (and publishing contracts remain local). It ties into my resistance to algorithmic marketing messages and the commodification of our identities in a socially networked, hyper-commercialized world. It’s also my opportunity to highlight how savvy crime fiction readers are and how that deep communal knowledge base can tell scholars something wise about literature and the reading experience.

Also, I want to experiment with the ways scholars could communicate now that we don’t have to rely on traditional mechanisms. I think scholarship is valuable, and not just of interest to a tiny sliver of like-minded specialists (or, if it is only that, those specialists shouldn’t expect the rest of us to foot the bill for their inward-gazing research written up for an audience of six or ten; you all can hash it out amongst yourselves, okay?) So fair warning: I’m going to be all exhibitionist and post stuff here and elsewhere in case anyone else is interested. If you aren’t – no worries. I am not in this for the “likes.”

One thing that makes me sad is that I originally imagined flying over to the UK to meet Maxine Clarke, because what she did to promote online discussion of mysteries was one of the inspirations for this project, and her extraordinary background in scientific publishing would have made her a terrific cultural informant. Unhappily, I waited too long – but her presence in our global reading community has been a major influence on this project of mine.

Anyway, here’s the proposal I’m sending in, in case anyone is interested. Wish me luck.

—–

Sabbatical Proposal
Barbara Fister
March 11, 2013

I would like to spend my next sabbatical working on a digital humanities project with two purposes: (1) to conduct research into online reading communities and (2) to present my findings in ways that explore alternatives to traditional scholarly publishing.

(1)    Social Reading Practices Online

There hasn’t been much research to date on online communities of avid readers that have formed to discuss books and the reading experience together. Their existence has become more visible with the advent of the GoodReads social network, which currently has over 14 million members, as well as its older, geekier cousin LibraryThing (1.5 million members). The rise of Amazon as a vertically-integrated book industry powerhouse is also an example of a platform that mixes commerce and voluntary book discussion and interaction between readers and authors, though controversies erupt periodically over review sock-puppetry and reviewer rankings (e.g. Pinch & Kessler 2011, Steitfeld 2012).

However, online reading communities date back to the early days of the Internet, with Usenet groups such as rec.arts.mystery (formed in the 1980s), Listserv groups, such as Dorothy-L (founded at Kent State University in 1990), and thousands of Yahoo and Google groups devoted to books that have formed in the past three decades. Such communities provide intriguing sites for researchers to explore what group members get out of reading for pleasure, observe the social aspects of reading, and witness how informal critical communities participate in the formation of cultural tastes around books. They also are places to observe social interactions in a digital space, including the negotiation of difference and the evolution of group social norms. Finally, they provide a vantage point for observing the ways people integrate their online and IRL (in real life) identities and can offer opportunities to consider cultural attitudes about digital versus face to face social interactions.

It will also be interesting to explore the emergence of new social platforms and their effect on online communities. Web 2.0 – the interactive web that includes blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other media – contains contradictory impulses. On the one hand, these platforms provide “free” spaces for interactivity and self-expression. On the other, they are designed around the self as a commodity. Personal information about habits, tastes, and interpersonal connections becomes valuable raw material platforms gather for data aggregation, mining, and resale. Individuals participating in these networks, in turn, are encouraged to market themselves and measure their social capital through the attraction of friends, likes, comments, retweets, and other quantitative analytics build into the platforms. I am curious about how these built-in analytics, which encourage self-representation in terms of marketing and promotion, influence reader group formation and social regulation. I am also interested in the role authors play in this space which is a mix of social interaction and self-promotional marketing work.

I plan to focus my study on readers of crime fiction, primarily because I am already a long-term participant in a number of online groups focused on that genre. I expect to use interviews, surveys, participant-observation and other primarily qualitative research methods. In addition to submitting my research plans to the IRB, I will refer to the recommendations for ethical research developed by the Association of Internet Researchers (2012) to ensure that I gather and use information ethically. I anticipate addressing an interlocking set of questions which will likely include the following lines of inquiry.

  • What are the social dimensions of reading and how does online reading group participation compare to the groups studied by Elizabeth Long (2003)?
  • Do the experiences of avid readers who participate in online groups confirm or depart from Catherine Sheldrick Ross’s findings (1999)?
  • How does online group participation enhance the reading experience for participants? How do those benefits compare to face-to-face reading groups?
  • What are the demographics of online reading groups? Who participates? How does age and gender figure in group composition? Are there some platforms that younger readers prefer, and if so, why?
  • What social rules emerge within a group? Are they explicit and is the group moderated? If not, how does the group handle trolls or heated disagreements? What kinds of relationship work do members perform to overcome a breach of group norms? How do they welcome new members?
  • How do members of online reading groups learn about new books that might interest them? “Discovery” is a compelling problem for publishers, who in the past relied on physical distribution to reach markets with sales reps and booksellers playing a key role. What can readers online tell us about the discovery process in a world saturated with choices?
  • How do authors and readers interact in these groups and how do readers and authors negotiate  the difference between peer relationships and commercial relationships?
  • Is the author-reader relationship changing authorship itself (as Stephanie Moody has suggested)? How does what Henry Jenkins calls “convergence culture” affect writers who interact regularly with their reading base?
  • How are avid readers reading today? What affordances contribute to the choices they make about print versus e-books or among e-book platforms?  How device-agnostic are they? What do they think about the rights issues articulated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (2010)?
  • Given that reader communities are borderless, what does membership in these communities contribute to greater understanding of other cultures?
  • How do readers experience rights restrictions, territorial sales, and (in cases such as the Australian book market) protectionist policies that limit access to books across borders? As discovery outpaces access, what are the implications for the book business?How do avid readers tap into local book culture? Does online engagement with books parallel local patronage of bookstores, libraries, author events, and other book-related cultural practices?
  • What are the advantages and constraints facing avid readers in different countries? (I will likely focus primarily on readers in the US, UK, and Australia, but may also study the experience of readers in Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa, since their economic, cultural, linguistic, and social situations make for distinctive book cultures – and they all have a lively presence in online communities.)
  • What roles do brick-and-mortar bookstores, public libraries, and fan conventions play in the lives of genre readers?
  • For readers who engage in multiple social media platforms, what distinctions do they draw between them? What features appeal to them as readers, or are seen as drawbacks?
  • What is the history of discussing books online? How have the platforms for interaction changed, and what impact have those changes had on participants?
  • In an era of dwindling review space in traditional media, how have these reading communities, (including online review sites and book bloggers) provided an alternative? How well do these alternative media work for those making reading choices?
  • How does the kind of criticism performed in these public places intersect with literary criticism, if at all? Do avid readers provide a depth of knowledge about genres that has critical value? What do scholars of literature have to learn from fan culture?
  • What contribution can this work make to the ongoing debates about digital culture enjoined by critics of technophilia such as Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier, Sherry Turkle, and Evgeny Morozov, as well as more utopian views of digital networks found in the work of David Weinberger, Yochai Benkler, and Clay Shirky? What can the study of online reading communities contribute to our understanding of the interplay between digital culture and culture in general?

(2)    New Approaches to Sharing Scholarship

This project, because of its digital focus and its multiple potential audiences, would provide a good opportunity to play with new ways of communicating scholarship. I propose making this a totally open project, with the questions that arise, speculations, dead ends, and conclusions available publicly and open for comment at every step of the way. I see the audience for this work to be not just other scholars (though I hope it will make a contribution to the scholarship around popular literacy, genre fiction, reading, and digital culture) but a cross-section of readers, publishers, writers, fans, and anyone interested in the book and its future.

Toward that end, I want to make this work accessible to these various audiences, both in terms of how I express myself (blending my scholarly interests with more vernacular approaches to genre literature and the act of reading) and in terms of who has actual access. For the past few years, I have been actively involved in the open access movement. In recent years I have only published my scholarship in venues which are open to all, either because there are no fees for access or because the publishers’ contracts allow self-archiving. (In fact, my entire department pledged in 2009 to make our work open access; we were the first liberal arts college to pass a departmental open access mandate.) Free access means more than a low, low price. It is an approach to scholarship that is open to discussion and available for others to repurpose. (See Suber, 2012, for a clear discussion of the distinction between gratis and libre open access.) I have followed and participated in experiments in open peer review such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence with interest. I would like to make this project public from the start and invite contributions and comments from members of my multiple communities:  readers, writers, publishers, critics, digital humanists, librarians. I am not sure at this point exactly what form this public work will take, but if this sabbatical project is approved, I envision beginning a series of interactions using social media such as Twitter (which is home to a lively digital humanities community) FriendFeed, old-school online reading networks that use groups and listservs, single-author platforms which invite comments (blogging), a public web archive of any relevant documents, a public bibliography via Zotero, and perhaps ultimately a book-length anthology or compilation of findings. If I create such a culminating document, I will likely use an open source platform such as PressBooks. I plan to use the most open Creative Commons license available for all of this work to invite remixing and reuse.

In many ways, the two parts of this project knit together my various interests in a satisfyingly complementary way. Knowing how communities of readers interact online will have implications for the lifelong learning goals we have for our students, who tend to see research as a set of academic tasks to be completed according to spec rather than as participation in an ongoing conversation. I have been trying, with mixed success, to introduce students to using blogs and other social media for invention, curation, discovery, and expression. I worry that we introduce them to only a piece of what it means to do research. They can find and use sources when needed, but they are not necessarily prepared to follow up on new developments in an area of interest, participate in professional digital communities, or apply their writing skills and intellectual training to public expression using social media. I have used blogs in classes for eight years and have not seen much increase in students’ familiarity with the technological and design capabilities of social platforms or in students’ ability or inclination to keep their eyes open for interesting things going on in the world. They are much happier if given a prompt to respond to rather than being asked to look around for something intriguing to write about. I’m sure time pressures contribute to this aversion for frequent informal and improvisatory invention, but being curious and able to develop personal filters to scan and sort through new information is a skill worth cultivating that is largely neglected in our pedagogy.

I’m also invested in the future of trade and scholarly publishing. We’re on the cusp of sweeping changes, and librarians need to step up and be part of the solution. Trade publishing matters because books are a significant record of our culture. Leaving its future in the hands of major publishers or Amazon – corporations more focused market share than on sharing or preserving culture – would be a betrayal of library values and a serious problem for future scholars who may have no public cultural record to consult. Scholarly publishing is ripe for new models and repurposing library resources and skills to help with the transition seems more important than finding yet new ways to wring more temporary licensed access to knowledge out of shrinking budgets. Finally, as the humanities face challenges from public figures who are hostile to education that is not firmly tethered to workforce readiness (and who fail to see how very much the humanities do, in fact, prepare their future hires to think, communicate, organize, and lead), I am committed to making research public and to do what I can to break down the barriers between academia and “the real world.” I’m hoping this project might help me discover some models for sharing and inviting participation in scholarship as it develops that others may find useful.

Though it may seem arcane to study readers’ responses to a particular slice of genre fiction, a case could be made that it’s in these cultural environs that we can find common ground between everyday readers and scholarly approaches to culture. We might even discover that they’re not as separate as we may think.

Works cited

Association of Internet Researchers. (2012). Ethical decision-making and Internet research: Version 2.0. Retrieved from http://aoir.org/reports/ethics2.pdf

Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks: how social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press. This book can be retrieved from http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/wealth_of_networks/

Carr, N. G. (2010). The shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: W.W. Norton.

Electronic Frontier Foundation. (2010, February 16). Digital books and your rights: A checklist for readers. Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.eff.org/wp/digital-books-and-your-rights

Fitzpatrick, K. (2011). Planned obsolescence. New York: New York University Press. The Media Commons version of the crowd-reviewed manuscript can be retrieved from http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/plannedobsolescence/

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a gadget: A manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Long, E. (2003). Book clubs: Women and the uses of reading in everyday life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moody, S. (2011) Virtual relations: Exploring the literary practices of ecommunities. Paper presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication Annual Conference, Atlanta, April 2011.

Morozov, E. (2013). To save everything, click here: The folly of technological solutionism. New York: PublicAffairs.

Pinch, T. & Kesler, F. (2011). How Aunt Ammy got her free lunch. Retrieved from http://www.freelunch.me/filecabinet

Sheldrick Ross, C. (1999). Finding without seeking: The information encounter in the context of reading for pleasure. Information Processing & Management,35(6), 783-799.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. New York: Penguin Press.

Streitfeld, D. (2012, December 22). Giving mom’s book five stars? Amazon may cull your review. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/technology/amazon-book-reviews-deleted-in-a-purge-aimed-at-manipulation.html?smid=pl-share

Suber, P. (2012). Open access. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.

Weinberger, D. (2007). Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder. New York: Times Books.

Selected past publications related to this project

On student learning

The library’s role in learning: Information literacy revisited,” Library Issues  (March 2013): 33.4.

Wikipedia and the challenge of read/write culture.” (2007, January). Library Issues 27.3

The Devil in the Details: Media Representation of ‘Ritual Abuse’ and Evaluation of Sources.” (2003, May). SIMILE: Studies in Media and Information Literacy Education 3.2.

Teaching the rhetorical dimensions of research.” (Fall 1993). Research Strategies 11.4: 211-219.

On reading

Reading, risk, and reality: Undergraduates and reading for pleasure,” with Julie Gilbert, College & Research Libraries 72.5 (September 2011): 474-495.

“‘Reading as a contact sport’: Online book groups and the social dimensions of reading.” Reference and User Services Quarterly, 44.4 (Summer 2005): 303-309.

On publishing

The public versus publishers: How scholars and activists are occupying the library.” Anthropologies 12 (March 2012).

Liberating Knowledge: A Librarian’s Manifesto for Change.” Thought & Action (Fall 2010): 83-90.

Trade publishing: A report from the front.” (2001). portal: Libraries and the Academy 1.4: 509-523.

On crime fiction

The millennium trilogy and the American serial killer narrative: Investigating protagonists of men who write women” (2012). In Rape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Beyond: Contemporary Scandinavian and Anglophone Crime Fiction edited by Berit Åström, Katarina Gregersdotter and Tanya HoreckLondon: Palgrave: 34-50. 

Copycat Crimes: Crime Fiction and the Marketplace of Anxieties.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 23.3 (Spring 2005): 43-56.

image courtesy of Social Collider – a screenshot of some of my Twitter connections in the past month. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s pretty.


on fairness: authors, libraries, and our future

January 27, 2013

kids reading

I’ve been reading tweets from the ALA midwinter meetings, and before that catching tidbits from Digital Book World, and of course hearing daily from librarians about the various ways that the ebook models emerging from the head offices of publishers are bizarrely borked. A few days ago I was trying to explain this tangle to a blogger who wonders what people can do to support the ability of academic libraries to satisfy multiple student learning styles and preferred reading platforms. The example he gave was a book he wants to assign in class that comes from Harvard Business Review, which won’t even allow faculty to assign articles in journals the library licenses for the campus. That site license only applies to articles you don’t have to read. If a teacher says you have to, somebody has to pay per semester, per students. And we’re supposed to police all this nonsense. It’s enough to make a pacifist a little stabby.

The combination of insanely complex limitations being placed by different publishers on what libraries and the communities they represent can acquire and share and the general perception that libraries aren’t good for the book business is frustrating. But it’s equally frustrating to hear from my fellow authors that librarians have to be patient. This is just a bump in the road until the industry figures out what’s a fair business model.

I ended up ranting a bit when this came up on a discussion list populated mainly by writers. This idea of chilling out until the fairness thing gets worked out pushed a button, the one at the top of the keyboard with an icon of a mushroom cloud on it. Funny how often that button launches a blog post. So here is my discussion list response, tidied up from my morning not-enough-coffee-yet, too-much-excitement sprawl.

on fairness

Full disclosure, I am a librarian, though I work at an academic library, where we don’t generally get to buy fun books. This issues we have with digital books are different than those public librarians have (which is itself a bit worrying, the gap between trade publishing and scholarly books growing even wider, but that’s another issue for another time). My beef here is more as a reader and writer than as a librarian.

Here’s my question: Is it unfair that libraries can loan print books until they fall apart and don’t have to throw them out when publishers say so? Is it unfair that libraries don’t have to pay three or four times the cover price for a book? Is it unfair that libraries are allowed to loan out frontlist and popular titles? All libraries want to do is what they’ve done in the past – pay a reasonable price for a book and let one person at a time read it. Publishers say that’s not fair. Not enough friction (a fancy word for artificially-induced inconvenience), not enough profit. Could bring the business to its knees.

Really? Then the survival of publishing is a freaking miracle. People have been reading books borrowed from libraries for quite some time. Going to a library is not so full of friction that hardly anyone does it. A majority of Americans have library cards and have checked out at least one book in the past 12 months. That hasn’t ruined the book business, it’s helped it. Being able to check out digital books from home – or, more commonly, fill out a form to get in line to borrow a book as soon as the 47 people ahead of you have had their turn – isn’t going to suddenly mean borrowing a book is so insanely easy that nobody will buy books in future, anymore than being able to check books out of a library before the Internet was invented  led to the sudden collapse of all bookstores. Also, bear in mind there wasn’t a button on the library shelf where a checked-out book had been saying “if you want to avoid waiting in line, push this button and you can buy it instantly.” There is a button like that on many digital library shelves. And it’s still not fair enough for publishers.

The only threat libraries pose to the book industry is if they are prohibited from fulfilling their role of introducing new authors to readers and developing an appetite for reading among young people, which is what will happen if publishers get to define “fair.”

Library users are book buyers. This isn’t anecdote, there’s hard data to show this is true. Publishes are unwilling to consider existing evidence that libraries are a keystone species in the book ecosystem. That’s an inconvenient distraction from the new power they wield to control how and what communities can read, and from their understandable obsession with Amazon’s power.  Libraries are the dog they can kick when the Department of Justice tells them to stop bullying Amazon.

But forget that data, let’s just do some simple numbers. If libraries are required to pay three or four times as much for an ebook so that publishers get their “fair” price, that means libraries will buy one ebook and will not buy three other books. Three sales gone, three discovery opportunities lost. Those books not bought are likely to be the ones library patrons aren’t already begging for. The ones ripe for discovery.

Some publishers want to “window” library use by selling access only to backlist titles. If libraries can’t stock a variety of frontlist books, readers won’t have the opportunity they’ve had in the past to discover authors who are not already well-established or have published a blockbuster best seller. If you are a traditionally published author who hasn’t spent a few weeks on the bestseller list, the public library is your best customer, because it will introduce your work to a lot of people who won’t hear about it otherwise. And if they like it, they will become your customers, too.

You can’t pay for this kind of word of mouth. But you can price it too high or make it wait too long to matter, long after you tried to get a contract for your next book but couldn’t because your sales record wasn’t strong enough.

As citizens and taxpayers, ask yourself if it’s fair to let publishers redefine who gets to read these days, and under what conditions. As business people … well, I hate to break it to you, but book publishers are not really that clever at figuring out what’s best for the book industry. So it’s not just whether it’s fair, it’s whether it’s good for the business they claim to represent. If you care about the future of the industry, don’t let publishers cut libraries out of it. We’ll all be sorry.

So endeth the rant. Peace be with you. Go forth and read.

photo courtesy of courosa


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