Sunday, March 26, 2006

OK, maybe we don't need e-paper

BBC reports that in the last five years the Japanese have taken to reading books on their phones in a big way. I noticed that the biggest commercial publisher of this kind of work only has 20,000 subscribers and 400 books but....

The interesting thing to me isn't that they are reading off their phones. I've read lots of stuff on my black and white Palm and these phones have color screens. No, it's the effect of this kind of media on the way people write and the reading habits of the people who read it. There's a publishing house that has launched a program to train people to write for the phone. Can't you see it on the back cover of a comic book? 'Make cash in your spare time by learning to write for the mobile phone market.' And at least one science fiction author says this kind of access "is reversing the younger generation's apathy towards reading." Of course they are reading pretty short pieces.

Now before everyone starts jumping up and down about how the world is coming to an end if people stop reading the Brothers Karamatoz because it's too long to read on a phone, check out The Singer of Tales. Or, if that's too long and academic for your reading tastes just breeze through the wiki article on it's author Albert Lord.

The point is that some of the earliest works we think of as literature (e.g., Beowulf, Gilgamesh) are transcriptions of parts of a person's performance of a much longer epic that would be told in different ways by lots of different people. That is, in the act of committing the works to writing we ended up shortening the pieces and fixing texts that had been dynamic. The oral performers of these epics (the singers of tales) varied their performances based in part on audience reaction. We're too hung up on the individual author and frozen text. There are lots of ways to skin a cat.

This could be something that has a transformational effect on society but who's to say that transformation will be bad? Shorter, fixed texts work pretty well for things like treaties and contracts. And while we all lament the passing of the illuminated manuscripts, there is much to be said for the transforming effects of the printed word and the rise of literacy.

And, interestingly enough, I think this is one of my longest entries ;--)

No comments: