The headlines are gloomy. The newspaper industry is contracting; print publishing is suffering at the hands of Amazon’s low prices and the e-book alternative. There is a justified pessimism about the traditional mechanisms of delivery.
And it’s thrown up very big questions. What about the appetite for news and the appetite for reading? What’s the impact of our expectation, in the early 21st century, that it’s not just comment but content that comes free?
The gloomy wisdom, again, is that serious Reithian news provision is suffering. It costs money to staff foreign bureaux, to cover town halls, to mount a lengthy investigation. It’s easier to offer news-lite, news you can use, news that shades into light entertainment. And as for reading, some of the most remarkable growth is in the softer options, like teen reads for adults, and guilty pleasures, like Fifty Shades of Grey on your Kindle on the tube.
But what do we make of the silver lining? These comments are purely anecdotal, no science. I’m just enjoying the new enthusiasm about reading that seems to have been sparked by our new ability to share.
All the world’s a virtual bookclub. And anyone can start a conversation.
A blogpost book review gets an echo – whether it’s picked up by algorithm or another blogger with a human face.
Hashtags on twitter can create a global bookclub that forms and disperses within hours, like a literary flashmob.
A recommendation brings rewards: if at the end of a Kindle read, I post an appreciative tweet, a fellow-reader’s find often bounces right back – “if you liked that, you’ll love this” – or “try this one, it’s much better!”
Here are just three of my online discoveries; I’d like to know yours.
A hashtag – #Fridayreads.
A website – Brainpickings.
And a weekly email from The Browser.
They’ve made my reading broader, more prolific, more fun. And so far, they’re all free. Though I’ve enjoyed The Browser’s eclectic offerings of long reads so much, I’ve just responded to their polite invitation to become a subscriber for more.
It’s as if we’re all wandering within an enormous virtual bookshop, not as strangers wrapped up inside our own heads, but neighbours immersed in a hum of civilised conversation.
If you love to read – and like to make connections – this is one way in which you’ll never be lonely again.
I’m not ignoring the hard part – the harnessing of that enthusiasm to a willingness to pay the price which keeps authors (and journalists) in business. I’m trying to see the bigger picture.
Could the rise of apps like The Browser lead to the end of my local library, or make it more likely that my child will get the library habit? Does a rising tide float all boats? Or am I failing to see what’s struggling to survive : not waving, but drowning?