Mark Zuckerberg has designated 2015 a Year of Books (www.facebook.com/ayearofbooks), and will read a book every fortnight and discuss it in public. Deep thoughters are reading this as a symptom that the nature of reading has changed from the most solitary activity ever, barring astronomy, to a sort of public jamboree.
But reading has always been social and book clubs formed spontaneously all over the world ages before the bean-counters and spreadsheet-wallahs in publishing houses started cultivating them for their marketing potential. Had the historical record been easier to read, we may have learned that shortly after the Epic of Gilgamesh was etched in stone, a book club convened on a balmy day on the banks of the Tigris to speculate the sexual symbology of lions.
Actually, all that Zuckerberg is trying to do is to test the waters that Goodreads has been swimming in. The publishing press suggests that he may have tasted success already. Hard copies of Moisés Naím’s The End of Power, the first book to be discussed on his reading group, were reported to have vanished off Amazon briefly. That makes Zuckerberg the Oprah of the internet.
What this suggests is not that the nature of reading is changing, but that the nature of publishing has already changed radically. Marketing leads from the front, having wrested the lead from editors, but that’s last decade’s news. What’s changing now is how marketing is done — it is cheaper and, possibly, more effective to roll your own campaign, in your own electronic media. Reviews pages and publications are on the endangered list because curating crowdsourced internet reviews is much easier and cheaper than engaging professional critics. At least, that’s what the curators believe. The curators of the curators, actually, since the curators themselves seem to be algorithms rather than humans, designed to track your behaviour and pop-up purchase suggestions as you browse internet bookshelves. While critics are credible because they are obviously above the teeming millions, the crowd appears trustworthy because it consists of people like us. The reader may well find the crowd more reliable.
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Where exactly is someone like Zuckerberg located in this game? Is he part of the crowd or elevated above it? Or does he annihilate space to be both simultaneously? Next up on his reading list is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argues that the world’s quotient of violence is declining. The book was published in 2011 and perceptions may have changed after recent developments in the Middle East and Africa, and Zuckerberg’s review is eagerly awaited.
The most interesting feature of the segment he is opening up is that it has rejected the tyranny of time. Traditional media takes the notion of “news” a little too literally and restricts its attentions to new releases. But the world of books is so well-marinated in time that, paradoxically, it may be said to exist outside it. Zuckerberg’s initiative — like some book blogs which disregard the timeline of literature — recognise this, and point to a future when criticism, almost a lost art today, may regain its stature.
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