Hemingway’s Declaration


Hemingway is a text editor, created by Adam and Ben Long, inspired by the spare writing style of Ernest Hemingway. It analyzes the length and complexity of your sentences. It indicates how frequently you use adverbs and passive constructions.

Here’s a fun game you can play with Hemingway. Take a text, preferably a well-known text, and try to incrementally reduce its grade level. You can play the game on your own or in competition with others.

I’ve just played the game with a paragraph drawn from the Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Hemingway dislikes this paragraph. Hemingway regards it as “Bad.”


As we can see, this paragraph of the Declaration reads at a Grade Level of 30. Four of its five sentences are Very Hard to Read. It uses more than zero adverbs. We are informed that two words or phrases could be simplified. The passive voice is used six times. We should aim for one or fewer passive sentences.

Step one of the game: Let’s get rid of these “errors” and see what we’re left with. We’ll need to do some reconstructive surgery on the original paragraph. How does this sound?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that God creates all men equal. Their Creator endows them with certain unalienable Rights. Among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. To secure these rights, Men institute Governments. Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it. They can institute new a Government. People should make a new Government that seems most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence dictates that Governments long established should not change for light and transient causes. Experience has shown, that mankind would rather suffer than to abolish governments. But when enough abuses and usurpations pile up, people have a right and duty to overthrow the Government. They should provide new Guards for their future security. This has been the situation of these Colonies. And now it’s necessary to alter our system of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations. These injuries and usurpations aim to establish an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, we submit Facts to a candid world.

Now we have a text that Hemingway regards as “Good.” It’s at a Grade 9 reading level. So we’re making progress. Unfortunately, most Americans read at a 7th or 8th Grade Reading Level. So we’ll have to go through another round of editing. Let’s see how low we can get the reading level without losing the sense of the original text.

Here goes our paragraph from the Declaration at a 4th Grade Level:

We think God creates all men equal. God gives us some Rights. They are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. We make Governments to keep these rights. We give governments permission to rule. When governments become bad, people can fix or end it. They make new Governments. Good governments make us safe and happy. We shouldn’t end governments for small reasons. Most people would rather suffer than end bad governments. But when governments get bad enough, people should fix or end them. They should make sure that governments can’t be bad. This is our problem. We have to switch our Government. The King of Great Britain is a bad man. He’s a tyrant. We will prove it.

We’re getting there. But I think we can do better. Let’s try to get to Grade 0.

God makes us equal. God gives us Rights. They are Life, Liberty and Happiness. Rulers help us. We pick rulers. Some rulers are bad. We stop bad rulers. We pick good rulers. Good rulers make us safe and happy. Be careful when you pick a ruler. We do not like to get new rulers. But when rulers get bad, we get new rulers. We make sure rulers can’t be bad. This is our problem. We have to switch rulers. The King of Great Britain is a bad man. He’s a tyrant. We will prove it.

That’s the end of the game for me. If you’re playing with someone else, compare your Grade 0 rewriting to that of your opponent. Whoever best retains the sense of the original wins.

Let’s call this game Hemingway’s Declaration.

The Perfect Word


Here at MultiWords we’ve peeked into the future and have seen the future of the Perfect Word. We bring good news.

In the bad old days, stuffy modernist authors obsessed over words. They put great faith in the process of revision. They saw the construction of style as a special kind of creative labor. They thought they, like, owned their words.

The Perfect Word served specific functions for the modernist writer. Some thought the Perfect Word perfectly matched an underlying reality. It showed the hard work the author put into the process of selecting it. It might affect you, the reader, in some precisely calibrated way. Whatever the reasons for choosing it, the Perfect Word was the word the author chose, the word the author imposed upon you.

Postmodernists became suspicious of perfection. Words only ever stood in relation to other words, they said, in an endless chain of reference. Words were social constructions that had no necessary relationship to any underlying reality. Authors, not surprisingly, freaked out. Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947) showed why picking a style was scary business. Exercises in Style renders the same trivial anecdote in ninety-nine styles. None of these ninety-nine is first or foremost. There’s no “original,” no authentic baseline. No legitimate way of picking the “right” style.

Today, anxious authors have other problems. Perhaps the Perfect Word today is the word that gets top search results. Literary style might well be something more like Search Engine Optimization. Perhaps the Perfect Word is the word that gets the most retweets. Style would then be technology for winning a social competition for attention.

We at MultiWords find these competitions somewhat dull. We’re sick of letting authors pick words. We’re sick of authors having crises. At MultiWords, you the reader will get to choose the Perfect Word. How awesome is that?

Using MultiWords, the Perfect Word is the word you choose for yourself. Your reading level, your mood, your values will shape which version of the author’s word will make its way to your eyeballs. The Perfect Word will be the words you most relate to. The Perfect Word will be the word that speaks to the your unconscious needs. The Perfect Word will be the word that knows you better than you know yourself. The Perfect Word is nothing other than the word you want to read when you want to read it.

The Need for Literary McNuggets


The publishing entrepreneur Richard Nash once described the true function of the Oprah Book Club in this way: “Books help Oprah more than Oprah helps books.” When Oprah got someone to read a book with her, she did so in order to capture “mind share during the other 23 hours of the day” when that member of her audience was not watching her show (Spavlik 2011). The point of reading Toni Morrison or William Faulkner with Oprah was not to appreciate Toni Morrison or William Faulkner. The point was to appreciate Oprah. Nash called this the “Oprah Effect.”

This description makes the Oprah Book Club sound like a diabolical scheme, devised in some dystopian near future, meant to hack our brains. And it may well have been just that. But Nash did not mean to condemn but to praise Oprah’s methods of mental colonization. He hoped that publishers might learn from Oprah, emulate her, better capture the attention of audiences, monetize that captured attention in new and exciting ways.

I’d like to turn Nash’s argument around. Whatever we think of the so-called Oprah Effect, Oprah’s Book Club was never only just a form of audience management. It also served an important purpose for her viewers. Indeed, Oprah’s Book Club served much the same function as ordinary book clubs. That is, it organized attention, formed communities, and visualized specific realizable goals for individual readers. Oprah’s Book Club exposed nothing other than the individual reader’s hunger to participate in collective life.

If there’s something nefarious about the Oprah Effect, it’s the way that our hunger for collectivity seems to have been hijacked by a corporate agenda. We might prefer our collective reading projects to be something other than forms of celebrity brand management.

Fortunately, there are alternate models.

I was fortunate to help organize one such alternate model during the summer of 2012 for the Los Angeles Review of Books. I had been asked to review William Gaddis’s J R (1975), a massive 700+ page novel that had just been reissued by Dalkey Archive Press. It was a daunting assignment, and I wasn’t sure how I’d manage to read the book over the course of my summer while attending to my other obligations. I suggested to the editors that we not just review the book but organize an online book club, which would read ten pages of Gaddis’s dense novel per day.

Participants could Tweet about the book using the hashtag #OccupyGaddis and LARB would publish occasional blog posts by various authors leading up to a formal review of the book at the end of the summer. #OccupyGaddis was partly modeled on Infinite Summer, which read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) over the summer of 2009. There have been a variety of similar online exercises, group reads of Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Bolaño’s 2666 (2004), and other big books.

#OccupyGaddis was a tremendous success. It drew far more people than I expected. The group reading took on a life of its own, and spawned an non-LARB-affiliated follow-up called #AutumnalCity, a collective reading of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975) conducted by many of the same people who participated in #OccupyGaddis.

All of which has led me to arrive at a few conclusions about public book clubs. First, the so-called decline of serious reading has been overstated. Our reading culture, though under assault, is not declining as quickly as some fear. There are still large communities of readers—and not just university-bound readers—who are excited to read challenging books together, and looking for opportunities to meet like-minded readers.

Second, collective reading need not only be a vehicle for celebrity brand management. Group-reading projects, in fact, express a powerful desire for a cultural commons. This desire may be channeled into various forms of consumer manipulation, but it need not be.

A better use of the desire for a literary commons would be to create durable institutions that would cultivate and spread public cultures of reading. Some communities have already attempted this, trying to get entire cities (“One City One Book”) or universities to read the same book at the same time. The effort to find books appropriate for the whole community has led to controversy in the selection of particular books (which is always also a political choice). But controversy shouldn’t be regarded as a danger to be avoided but a feature of such efforts to forge consensus and mutual understanding. Literary culture is, after all, unavoidably also political culture.

Others dislike the very idea of exercises in mass reading. “I don’t like these mass reading bees,” the literary critic Harold Bloom told the New York Times in 2002. “It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once” (Kirkpatrick 2002). Of course, the problem with Chicken McNuggets isn’t that we eat them all at once. It’s that they’re manufactured by a large, impersonal corporation that doesn’t have much incentive in caring about our health or gustatory wellbeing.

What we need to do is find ways of producing, distributing, and consuming more delicious, nutritious, satisfying literary Chicken McNuggets. This is a central task for any exercise in imagining the future of reading.

Why I’m Here


My name is Lee Konstantinou. I’m an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. I study contemporary American fiction and culture, and I’m also a novelist.

This is my second book sprint.

During my first book sprint, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I discussed how my twin perspectives—as a literary academic and a fiction writer—led me to think that we needed to “reimagine (and transform) publishing as a field…from production to distribution to consumption.”

What I meant was that the future of the book was as much a matter of human institutions as of technology. I wanted to bring a sociological perspective to the question of how we’ll write and distribute text in the future. I feel much the same way about the future of reading.

I want to resist the tendency to discuss the future of reading, publishing, and writing solely in terms of technology, to fixate on the finished thing in front of us (whether p-book, e-book, or some hybrid of the two). Against this habit, I want to focus on questions of social process.

These questions indicate how I think about the future of reading:

What is a reader? What capacities do we think readers ought to have? What better models of reading should we promote? What values, assumptions, and ideologies—that is, what normative models of reading—shape the way we build and assess new reading technologies? How do our contemporary models of the reader compare with historical models?

How do we become readers? How do readers come into the world? What are the educational, economic, governmental, and social institutions that make us into the sorts of readers we are? What forces shape our reading practices, communities, and capacities? What are the advantages and limitations of our current institutions of reading?

Will readers flourish or whither away in the future? If we think, as many do, that reading is in crisis in the United States today, what is the nature of that crisis? What are its social, economic, political, and technological origins? What might we do to assess the scope of the crisis? How might we reverse it?

These questions will, I hope, inspire debate. But I believe that the future of reading is in our hands—not in the hands of our machines. I’m here to participate in that debate.

Two Paths for the Future of the Author


Let’s pretend you’re an author. What do you most want from life? More likely than not, you want readers to read what you create, and you want enough money to keep writing what you’d like to write (in relative comfort). In the future, who is going to read your books? Who is going to give you money to keep paying your rent? The most common answer, the author’s fantasy, is that she will earn money from the people who read her work.

You dream of living comfortably because you’re able to attract readers. This is more or less a fantasy of market justice. I’m sorry to report that reality bears little relation to this fantasy. The people who read you and the people who pay your bills are probably not going to be the same. It is exceedingly rare for an author to be able to generate enough of an income to survive from book sales. In almost every case, non-readers subsidize your writing.

This is true today, and will continue to be the case. Let’s take a look at two possible futures for the author which have their foundations in already existing institutions.

Literary Investors

My novel Pop Apocalypse imagines a future world in which aspiring celebrities can float their names on a reputation stock market. After your IPO, you capitalize on your potential, build your human brand and pay dividends to shareholders. There are primitive examples of systems like this that exist today. For example, the novelist Tao Lin sold shares of the profits of his novel Richard Yates to readers. The minor-league pitcher Randy Newsom sold shares of his future earnings. Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding sites promise to generalize these phenomena.

You may think of these sites as a means of forging a direct relationship to readers. But this is a mistaken view. Such sites are only indirectly related to whether you connect to readers. On these services, enthusiastic investors may pony up cash because they like a particular project. They may indeed want to read your book. But they may also have purely financial motivations. If the author is offering to share a portion of the book’s profits, the book itself is secondary. Investors may, as Ian Bogost suggests, have an almost purely imaginative relationship to the project in question. Bogost writes:

We don’t really want the stuff. We’re paying for the sensation of a hypothetical idea, not the experience of a realized product. For the pleasure of desiring it. For the experience of watching it succeed beyond expectations or to fail dramatically. Kickstarter is just another form of entertainment. It’s QVC for the Net set. And just like QVC, the products are usually less appealing than the excitement of learning about them for the first time and getting in early on the sale.

Your investors may want to be seen as the sort of person who supports a particular kind of literary project. They may be fans of your literary brand, not your books. So literary investing would become a kind of entertainment media. Admittedly, part of the symbolic fulfillment of a particular entertainment-investment might involve the author-brand completing her proposed book. Investors might also feel happier if their favorite author is a bestseller. Who doesn’t love a winner?

But whatever the case may be, you shouldn’t nurse the fantasy that you’re earning your keep because readers love – or even read – your books. Whether or not a literary investment fulfills its promise, its success is only incidental to its material realization.

State Subsidies

Norway offers another model for your literary future. As Wendy Griswold documents in her book of literary sociology, Regionalism and the Reading Class, Norway invests in its authors in a serious way. I outlined the dramatic scope of this investment in a post on Stanford’s Arcade blog:

Norway buys 1000 copies of every book a Norwegian author publishes. It provides a $19,000 annual subsidy to every author who is a member of the Authors’ Union. The Association of Bookstores is allowed to have a monopoly on the sale of books – but is prohibited by law from engaging in price competition. It requires, by law, that bookstores keep books in stock for two years regardless of sales. And it exempts books from its very steep sales tax. Not surprisingly, Griswold finds, “Norwegians everywhere read, and they read a lot; Norway has one of the world’s highest reading rates.”

Under this system, authors receive generous support, literary culture thrives and readers presumably have a wide range of appealing books to buy on the market. Which is all for the good. As an author, I’d like to live in a country with a literary system that resembled Norway’s. Though you would be materially enriched if you lived under such a system, the relation between you and your readers is anything but pure or simple. You presumably receive your subsidy whether or not you are productive in a given year. You’re ultimately being paid by taxpayers, not readers. These taxpayers may or may not also be readers. At the top of the literary pyramid of success, you may earn substantially more than your allotted subsidy, or you may not.

The state presumably doesn’t subsidize authors because they love you as an individual author – sorry! – but rather because it reflects the priorities of the population. A people who choose to direct tax dollars toward authors presumably care about fostering a healthy and sustainable national literary culture. The goodness or badness of a particular author is beside the point. The health of the literary field as a whole is what is at stake. We may debate the desirability of such a system – the question of whether Norway’s system is optimal will require much more discussion – but the point is that your capacity to pay your rent and your readership is heavily mediated.


What conclusions can we draw from juxtaposing these two models? First, the writer-reader relationship is never simple. You may think that you are fostering communities of loyal followers or readers, but you’re actually interacting through a much vaster set of mediating institutions. Someone educated your readers. Labor law shapes the amount of leisure time that your readers have to enjoy your books. The state may facilitate your bodily survival, either through the provision of social welfare benefits (like health care), through tax breaks and other subsidies or through other indirect means. When you put your wares on the market or make a promise to put your wares on the market, you may think you are forging a more direct connection to your readers. In fact, you are fostering the fantasies of readers, possible readers and others who may not read word you write.

Is this a depressing state of affairs? No, it’s just as it should be – and, moreover, just as it must be. The real question goes beyond the situation of the individual writer. The question is: What kind of literary system do you want to live in? What policies, institutions, and economic arrangements would foster the world you want to write in? If you believe you have some hand in determining the future of the book – if you believe that, working together, we can direct the Shape of Things to Come – then the real task ahead is to build this better, alternate world. You’ll have to become a writer of something like political science fiction.

Building Worlds Out of Books


We’ve been writing about the future of the book without having given much thought to the question of what a book is in the first place. Is it a physical, papery artifact, a thing? An autonomous textual unit of attention made up of meaningful bite-sized subunits? A word whose persistence in language is merely a matter of convention, a residue of more bookish times?

I’d like to propose that a book is a window onto a world. If this is true, we have good reason to believe that books will survive in a form that will remain recognizable to us.

Books project worlds by objectifying thought. They freeze in place a story, a longish idea or a description of life. Books are one means of taking a world, real or invented, and compressing it, encoding it and presenting it. Books shrink space and crush time. So long as we enjoy shrinking space and crushing time, we’ll crave book-like things.

Then again, in the same breath that they create worlds, books also destroy themselves. When I read a science fiction novel (and not only science fiction), I read for worlds. I define the word world as the sum total of relations – among things, characters, settings, laws, etc. – within a bounded imaginative space. If the book does its job, its bookishness will dissolve into the reader’s concern for characters and situations and plots. Even the most intensely avant-garde poetry (think Kenneth Goldsmith’s American trilogy) or the boldest experiments in book design (think Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes) construct worlds. Even the most book-conscious books are finally self-effacing.

Which might lead us to doubt that books need to survive. If I can watch a skillfully made rendition of Frank Herbert’s Dune, of what special use is the novel? It’s true, literary style is only one sort of window onto interesting worlds. But it’s a window with strengths and weaknesses, zones of clarity and opacity. Despite a century of efforts to do so, no novel will ever offer the visceral experience of a play or film or television show or video game. Contrariwise, non-literary modes of world-building still stink at dramatizing thought or deploying metaphor. Within the domain of prose fiction, moreover, short stories can only hint at the fullness of an imagined or real world, a job the novel does with ease.

There are also economic reasons why books will likely survive. In an age of vertically integrated multinational media conglomerates, books remain useful as vehicles for the creation of worlds on the cheap, worlds that subsequently spawn other higher-margin worldish media products. A company like DC Comics sustains its comics division almost purely as a means of research and development for its profitable films. Film producers often outsource creativity to popular novels or book series. The book (whether of poetry, drama or prose) fits snugly in curricula and on syllabi at every level of education. Finally, the novel is still at the peak of the pyramid of narrative and cultural prestige. No other form comes close to capturing the imagination of a world-hungry public. These are forces that will, fortunately, be hard to dislodge.

The future of the concept of the book is therefore the future of the book’s capacity to facilitate the reader’s access to worlds. As long as humans are hungry for fully evoked worlds that include figuration or densely packed information or renditions of characters (or people) whose inner lives are richly accessible, something very much like the book will survive.

What Is the Future of the Editor?


In his classic essay “What Is an Author?” Michel Foucault offered an analysis of authorship that questioned received ideas about authorial authenticity and originality.

His essay describes authors not as persons but as a “function of discourse,” whether historical, social, or technological (124). Really, his essay ought to be called “What was an Author?” since he ends by saying that “We can easily imagine a culture where discourse would circulate without any need for an author” (138). You can’t help but suspect he’d prefer to live in such a culture.

This is an alienating way to think of authorship, partly because the figure of the author turns out to be not someone who writes but rather someone who is, in a sense, written by circulating social discourses. Your former illusions of writerly mastery turn out to be an effect of your context. A lot of working writers might not find imagining such a world as “easy” as Foucault does.

This way of talking may be less jarring if you realize that you, as an aspiring author or working author-function, are always also contributing to those circulating discourses. So it might be more accurate to say that the author doesn’t disappear in Foucault’s account, but in some sense gets smeared across a variety of locations, persons and institutions, joining a good old-fashioned cybernetic circuit.

Which brings me to the question of my title. The first step in figuring out the future of the editor is to ask a prior, more important question. What is an editor? The editor, like the author, is also a function of discourse. But the editor also has a function. The editor’s job is to be a switching station, a resistant medium through which the writer’s message travels en route to readers (where we understand that reader and writer refer not to persons but to functions).

Without the medium of transmission, communication isn’t possible. Without editorial friction or resistance, writers and readers instantly disappear. Writing wouldn’t be communication but instead be a sort of telepathy or merging of minds. So editing is an ineradicable part of what any author tries to do. It’s not only a good thing that editors exist, but logically necessary that they do.

So the real question of the future of editing is the question of who will edit (not whether someone will edit). Online, writers get to be self-editors, and readers, via various channels (comments, click statistics) also act as various types of editor. The writer’s fantasy of escaping editors is just that: a fantasy. You are always being edited, always self-editing. The question isn’t whether you’ll be edited, but by whom and how. What future platforms will editing happen on? What forms of editing will these platforms encourage and discourage? How will editing be visualized, communicated, and incorporated into new drafts?

We might be able to imagine a culture without authors – though I admit I find it hard too – but in any culture with authors we’ll never eliminate editors. Which is a good thing. We should, instead, celebrate them. And pay them, while we’re at it.

Our Friend the Book D.J.


In the future, book producers will not produce books. They will manage brands.

Authors are already told they have to behave like brands. They need to run their own web sites, have a presence on popular social media sites, cultivate reader communities and market their own books (publishers won’t bother). Under such conditions, who needs publishers? Aren’t they little more than parasites on the reputation and income stream of authors? Won’t publishers wither away?

No, they won’t. They’ll become more important than ever. Paradoxically, as it becomes easier for authors to establish direct relationships with readers, publishers will become more significant, not less. This will happen for two reasons, both related to their essential future function as brand managers. Because these likely future entities won’t resemble contemporary publishers, let’s stop calling them publishers. Let’s call them Autonomous Literary Imprints, or imprints for short.

Readers will want imprints. Imprints will help them navigate the confusing, effectively infinite digital graphosphere. In my previous essay, I evoked the farcical figure of the Book DJ. Well, he’s back, and he’s here to stay. In his function as an embodied imprint, he may even be the same person running your local pop-up book retailer. His job is to have good taste. His livelihood will depend on his reputation. He will make – and break – canons. His stock will rise and fall with literary history. His culture will be his capital. He may, of course, be part of a multi-person imprint. Imprints may consist of one person or one million. They may interlock or be nested within each other. The point is, you will have a relation with the imprint. You will trust it as much as you trust your friends on Facebook or the people you follow on Twitter. Imprints are people too, not only legally but also as vibrant presences on social media.

Writers, too, will need Autonomous Literary Imprints. In your role as a writer, you will look to imprints because they have the power to confer upon you a slice of their accumulated cultural capital. Earning the brand mark of the right imprint will shape your career. It will launch you toward fame or disrepute. It’ll determine whether you can get that university teaching gig that’ll pay your rent. Whether you’re invited to that posh writer’s retreat. Whether you can generate income streams from speaking engagements. Whether you’re invited to write essays for prestigious magazines and book collections. Whether readers will even (yes, it’ll still be possible) buy your books and (who knows) maybe even read them.

More importantly, in your role as a writer, you will need imprints because you won’t know who to believe in the shark-filled marketplace for author services. Do you trust that freelance editor? That book designer? In the future, the imprint will be a kingmaker and a node of trust for various literary actors. The imprint will be an orienting map in a confusing supply chain of authors, agents, editors, designers and academics.

In a field of production populated by a ragged surplus army of desperate, hungry, fame-seeking writers – in a world where more pretty good books will be published in one second than any reader can read in a lifetime dedicated to nothing other than reading – mediators will become more, not less important.

So a popular techno-utopian buzzword like disintermediation is deceptive. It suggests that we’re moving into a world of no limits or controls. Instead, we’re moving into a world of total branding. Whether this new world is desirable or not is another question. I’m ambivalent about this likely future, but I’m sure our friend the Book DJ is pretty stoked.

The Future of the Bookstore


Is there a future for the bookstore in a digital age?

Despite the death of independent bookstores, despite the failure of major booksellers like Borders and Barnes & Noble, I think the answer is yes. Bookstores may well survive, if we’re open to the possibility that they may not, strictly speaking, be stores or physically house books. It might be better to say that the function of the bookstore will persist, albeit in a new material form.

Bookstores had an important mission: They physically distributed books to readers. They curated the books that they stocked. They guided individual readers to new books. They were (and still are) community centers, hosting readings, effectively serving as reading rooms, at their best creating not only readers but also reading publics. In what follows, I will assume the continued value of print books (see my previous essay, in the chapter “How will people read in the future?”).

Beyond existing modes of distribution — indies, big booksellers, and mega-retailers like Costco — how will we find new p-books in the future? How should we? Here are a few suggestions.

AMAZON STORE FOR BOOKS. Just as Apple has an Apple Store where it displays its sleek wares, Amazon might consider creating a bricks-and-mortar establishment meant to showcase its papery products. It’s possible, just possible, that customers will come into such stores, browse through physical books, and then decide to, you know, buy them. It’s a crazy idea, but if any innovative forward-looking technology company can make it work, Amazon can.

BOOK POP-UP. As physical bookstores increasingly go out of business, we might imagine a version of pop-up retail for the book sector. Such pop-up stores would by necessity be small, but they could colonize existing retail spaces, either legally or (what would be neater) extra-legally. With the aid of social media we might organize flash bookstores, which feature curated collections of the very coolest books, past and present, all handpicked by what we might call Book DJs (let’s all agree not to call them Book Jockeys, for obvious reasons), whose reputations will depend on their meticulous taste. No self-respecting hipster should buy his or her book from any other sort of store.

POD MACHINE. Some independent booksellers, like McNally Jackson in New York, have brought Espresso Book Machines into their store, allowing the printing of public domain books on demand. Such machines could populate many different retail locations, or even in time be part of every home. There’s also no technical reason that every book, both public domain and private, shouldn’t be available via POD Machine. Until technologies like 3D printing make it possible to print a high-quality book on demand in the home, let’s install a fast POD machine in every café in the land (Starbucks: I’m looking at you), set them up among vending machines wherever fine sugar drinks and fatty snacks are sold, and incorporate them into every airplane, where airline carriers can take their predatory cut from text-hungry frequent fliers. The whole human library should be available on demand, as a beautiful physical print-off, at any time.

PUBLIC LIBRARY. A radically socialist scheme, the public library is a place where stuffy government bureaucrats purchase books using tax dollars, store these books and then make them available to the general public. In the future, public libraries may become a key resource for preserving literary culture, if rapacious capitalists don’t kill them off first.

These are all ideas that could be pursued now, with a little bit of will, either on the part of private or public organizations. The future of the book is in our hands. We should make sure that readers can find the books they want, and that our institutions of book discovery work in their (that is, our) interests.

Reading and Our Addiction to Distraction


My name is Lee Kon­stan­ti­nou, and I’m an addict. I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion, diver­sion and inattention.

I haven’t reached bot­tom yet, but I’m still embar­rassed to be mak­ing this admis­sion in pub­lic. After all, as an Eng­lish pro­fes­sor, it’s my job to pay atten­tion. You could say that hav­ing a lit­er­a­ture Ph.D. means claim­ing to have a capac­ity to pay atten­tion. It’s called close read­ing for a reason. An addic­tion to dis­trac­tion is extremely inconvenient for aspiring close readers.

How­ever, I’ve increas­ingly become con­vinced that my strug­gle against dis­trac­tion isn’t inci­den­tal to my job. As dis­trac­tions esca­late, cul­ti­vat­ing close atten­tion only grows more impor­tant. It’s my job to teach stu­dents how to focus, how to over­come the same distraction-addiction I strug­gle with daily. This is why I ban lap­tops – and grouse when stu­dents ask to bring e-books – in class. They get in the way of clear think­ing and sus­tained atten­tion, I say.

Which is true. But I’m also skep­ti­cal of nar­ra­tives that vil­ify tech­nol­ogy. If online media weren’t dis­tract­ing us, some­thing else would get in the way (a lovely sum­mer day, for instance). Before the Inter­net stoked my dis­trac­tion addic­tion, TV did a fine job of keep­ing me away from what some second-order part of me wanted to be doing. Complicating matters further, the Inter­net has become a vital part of my lit­er­ary schol­ar­ship, a nec­es­sary tool for writ­ing. Google Books and Google Scholar are the great­est resources ever invented for aca­d­e­mics. If any­thing, these ser­vices haven’t gone far enough in mak­ing text elec­tron­i­cally available.

So which is it? Is the Inter­net a scourge or a boon for the reader? By say­ing that I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion rather than some­thing more amor­phous – like “the Inter­net” or “social media” – I hope my view is plain. Our dis­cus­sions about the future of the book often devolve into a com­par­i­son of so-called e-books and p-books. This dis­course is apoc­a­lyp­tic in tone, often zero-sum in its logic. P-book par­ti­sans such as Sven Birk­erts and Jonathan Franzen fear the diabolical reign of e-books. Others argue for the supe­ri­or­ity of e-books. In The Late Age of Print, Ted Striphas claims that e-books can help us exam­ine “unex­am­ined assump­tions about the moral, intel­lec­tual, and archival worth of paper and print” (xiv). P-books, mean­while, are his­tor­i­cally impli­cated in per­pet­u­at­ing “cus­toms of exclud­ing, intim­i­dat­ing, defil­ing, and behav­ing vio­lently toward those who are per­ceived as social or eco­nomic infe­ri­ors” (xii).

This way of talk­ing incor­rectly assumes that books are some­how autonomous. It isn’t ever books – whether e- or p- – that exclude or defile. It’s peo­ple or groups of peo­ple who do, with technological assistance. This means that any dis­cus­sion about the future of read­ing needs to think not only about the form of new read­ing devices but also about the con­text or sit­u­a­tion of reading.

The real divi­sion isn’t between e- and p-books, but between read­ing plat­forms that facil­i­tate long-form atten­tion and those that don’t. When I say I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion, what I mean is that my cur­rent read­ing habits don’t mesh well with exist­ing reading plat­forms. That’s why peo­ple want soft­ware like Free­dom or Anti-Social. Internet-enabled readers make it hard to resist the temp­ta­tion to divide our focus.

If this is the case, why not just stick with good old p-books? They’re quite good at keep­ing us on task. It’s true. This is why lap­tops, mobile devices and (when pos­si­ble) e-books ought to be banned from class­rooms. This is why, when I moved into my cur­rent apart­ment, I decided to con­vert a large walk-in closet into a ded­i­cated read­ing room. I put in a book­shelf, an IKEA Poäng and a foot­stool, and I made a pact not to allow elec­tronic devices into the read­ing closet. Free­dom requires lim­i­ta­tion. Fulfilling our second-order desires depends on our ability to regulate our less enlightened impulses.

The prob­lem is that I’m not only a reader but also a scholar, and my schol­ar­ship would be impov­er­ished if I didn’t have access to online resources. To do my job effectively, I have to sit in front of a temptation machine for hours at a time, which makes it hard to treat my dis­trac­tion addiction.

What I want is a book that tran­scends the dis­tinc­tion between e- and p-. I want a book – maybe I should call it a book sys­tem – that trav­els with me into dif­fer­ent con­texts of read­ing with­out los­ing its iden­tity. Some­times, I want to sit down with a book, walled off from the Internet, and just read it. At other times, I want to be able to anno­tate a book, to search it, to write a com­men­tary linked to spe­cific pas­sages in it, to link my com­men­tary to a com­mu­nity of dis­course on the book, to con­struct longer-form reflec­tions on it. Some­times I want my book system to help keep me focused on reading; some­times I want it to allow me to access larger net­works. Dif­fer­ent form fac­tors – and read­ing con­texts – facil­i­tate dif­fer­ent stages in this process. At the moment, we live in an ecol­ogy of incom­pat­i­ble, often poorly designed devices and read­ing plat­forms. A bet­ter read­ing world would allow seam­less move­ment between con­texts and plat­forms. A bet­ter sys­tem would help read­ers do the kind of read­ing they need to do at the times they need to do it.

My read­ing closet has more to teach us about the future of read­ing than any par­tic­u­lar new e-reader plat­forms. It’s my machine for man­ag­ing atten­tion. It’s a space – I might go so far as to say an insti­tu­tion – within which new read­ing habits can emerge. In A Room of One’s Own, Vir­ginia Woolf argued that women very lit­er­ally need room to facil­i­tate writ­ing. Read­ers too, just as much as writ­ers, need a room, a mate­r­ial infra­struc­ture, to facilitate reading. A read­ing closet is one tech­nol­ogy for doing this. If I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion, it’s my recov­ery program.

So: ignore the gadget-obsessed, platform-mongering tech­nol­o­gists. The future of read­ing is the future of sit­u­a­tions, insti­tu­tions and habits of reading.

Why I’m Here – Lee Konstantinou


I bring two dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives to Sprint Beyond the Book. The first is the per­spec­tive of an author. My first novel, Pop Apoc­a­lypse (2009), is a near-future sci­ence fic­tion satire about a world where the Inter­net has been con­sumed by a new, closed plat­form called the medi­a­s­phere. As someone who likes to make fictional predictions, I’ve been think­ing a lot about the future of media.

I’m also a literary scholar. In my academic work, I’m inter­ested in con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can writ­ers, the rise of celebrity authors, and the rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions of Anglo-American trade pub­lish­ing since 1960. I’ve been impressed by new lit­er­ary schol­ar­ship such as Mark McGurl’s The Pro­gram Era (which is about the rise of cre­ative writ­ing programs) and by lit­er­ary soci­ol­ogy such as John Thompson’s Mer­chants of Cul­ture (which is about the social field of trade pub­lish­ing). These books show how profoundly the lit­er­ary field has changed over the last four decades. Pub­lish­ers have been con­cen­trated, often becom­ing sub­sidiaries of multi­na­tional media com­pa­nies. Agents and retail­ers have gained mar­ket power, squeez­ing the bot­tom lines of pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies. Authors, most of whom make lit­tle to no money from their writ­ing, have increas­ingly had to sup­port them­selves either through sec­ondary income streams (such as talks) or by seek­ing patron­age from insti­tu­tions such as the university.

These trans­for­ma­tions affect what authors do – and what they can’t do. Insti­tu­tions are always leg­i­ble on the page. As a fic­tion writer, I’m inti­mately aware of how these pres­sures migrate into my every­day prac­tice. My abil­ity to write, and the con­tent of what I write, is hemmed in by the insti­tu­tional sup­ports, the com­mu­nity gathered around me, the assump­tions edi­tors bring to my man­u­scripts, the con­straints of the current book mar­ket and broader eco­nomic and tech­no­log­i­cal trends.

That’s why we need to reimag­ine (and trans­form) pub­lish­ing as a field, not just as an indus­try, from pro­duc­tion to dis­tri­b­u­tion to con­sump­tion. We need to ensure that authors receive the sup­port they need, and that read­ers have access to well-edited, high-quality writing. What are the forms of support that allow authors to sur­vive and write well? What forms of men­tor­ship and career devel­op­ment are pos­si­ble today? Who creates and shapes reading publics? What direc­tion do we want to move in?

These aren’t only academic ques­tions, but also questions whose answers should guide what actions we take in mak­ing a bet­ter future. We shouldn’t simply sub­mit to the mar­ket or to the allure of new tech­nolo­gies, but should make a new lit­er­ary sys­tem that works for read­ers and writers.