Books are downloadable. Ideas are not downloadable. You have to read to get new ideas. As books increasingly become non-objects in their e-form, it becomes even more important to have a special relationship between the reader and the book, both being bearer of ideas. So how to (re-)define our relationship with books?

Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO (image UNESCO), triggered me to write this post. On the 23rd April 2011, on World Book and Copyright Day, she wrote: ‘Books are both object and idea. Tangible in form, intangible in content, they express the mind of an author and find meaning in the imagination of readers.’ I immediately liked these two sentences, but as I read closer, they were not as enlightening as they seemed. Books in fact increasingly are non-physical-objects, they come to us in their digitalized form of downloadable e-books. And they are not intangible in content; readers attach their interpretation and do this on purpose and not coincidentally. They comment on content, and content nowadays is very fluid and transportable. So it’s appropriate to start thinking about books being non-objects and tangible in content.

Viewing content as tangible, does in fact empower the reader. It’s exciting to see how reading develops and what readers do. I observe two tendencies here, the first dealing with reading techniques, the second with reading content.

Scrol, scan and skim: how reading becomes info processing

Most online reading is about fast info-seeking. You do not read a website, you scan or skim it. Scanning and skimming are well known reading techniques. Skimming is to read quickly in order to get a rough idea of what a text is about. You do not pay attention to every word. Your eyes scroll quickly through. Scanning is to read in order to find specific information. When scanning, you have a specific goal in mind. You read knowing what you are looking for.

Skimming and scanning are highly efficient ways of dealing with info overload. The reader turns into a fast infoseeker and infoprocessor. In the enormous ocean of info these certainly are valuable qualities. You’re surfing and travelling in a wide world, but where to? You may not want to become ‘the tool of your tools‘ (Thoreau*). It’s like driving a car really. You do an awful lot of things at the same time and this works fantastic, you are speeding up and getting ahead. Until you realize you don’t know where you are going to and you may not want to be driving a car, but rather do something else.

How to read content: the inner discovery

One cannot read a book without inner participation, bringing in something of yourself. In Books and You, W. Somerset Maugham* emphasized ‘involved reading’. You must be interested in human relationships, you must possess some fantasy. When you do involved reading, a book will last. This type of reading is about reading every word, and about discovery. You don’t know what to discover. You may discover something completely new, different from what others discover.

‘We must protect them’, wrote UNESCO-Director-Gernal Irina Bokova. ‘Books are pillars for free and open societies.’ The best way to protect books is to read and discuss them. It’s not about downloading e-copies, or about scrolling, but about involved reading and sharing ideas. This has no specific physical or technical form, it’s just the You in ‘Books and You’.

* D.H. Thoreau 1854. Walden: or Life in the Woods. Boston: Tickner and Fields. (Dover Publications 1995)

* W. Somerset Maugham 1940; 2006. Books and You. Eine kleine persönliche Geschichte der Weltliteratur. Zürich: Diogenes. Essays published in: Saturday Evening Post, 1940.