If I am fortunate enough to get promoted again, I’ll face a choice. My position can either be Associate Professor, or Reader.
It will still be a while before I have to make that choice, but Reader is a pretty tempting title.
Why would an academic be called a Reader?
It comes from the days before the printing press, when books were very rare. In the first universities, the Reader was the person that read the book out loud to the class.
At the time, the idea of a book was quite different from what it is now. Books were rare, since only a few people were literate, they were mysterious, and the bestowed power to those that could read. They were big and heavy, and when they were read, the were placed on a stand and read out loud.
At the International Schumpeter Society Conference here in Brisbane last month, David Lane gave a fascinating talk on innovation, and he talked about the point in time when the form and meaning of books changed – in Renaissance Italy. His talk here is very similar to the one he gave us:
I thought of his talk recently on a day when I picked up these two items:
They are both reading devices. The book is the 1932 edition of A Handwriting Manual by Alfred Fairbank. The gadget is a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2.
Lane tells the story of the invention of the physical object that looks like Fairbank’s book. It happened in Florence, with a new form of book called the Ottavo. This format unleashed an innovation cascade. It was the first form of book to be published in a language other than Latin. It used italic handwriting for the first time, and it was also the first time that punctuation was used.
Punctuation is important, because it signals the more radical innovations in the cascade. These all came from how the new Ottavos were used. They were no longer read out loud – you could read it yourself. That’s why they needed punctuation.
This also meant that you could read a book anywhere, not just in a library. And because they were written in Italian, not Latin, many more people could read them.
All of a sudden, the meaning of the concept “book” changed radically.
The new format led to new behaviours, which in turn led to a change in the meaning of both the object and the behaviours.
The innovation cascade continued. With the new meanings and behaviours, new roles quickly followed. Now we had authors, publishers, printers, and booksellers. None of these jobs really existed prior to the Ottavo.
At the same time, a bunch of jobs became a lot scarcer – like copyist and illuminator.
Lane distinguishes between two types of innovation. One type makes things better, faster, cheaper. Evolutionary change, in other words. But revolutionary change comes when we innovate the meaning of things.
So what does this mean when we start to do more of our reading on things like the Tab 2? It’s likely that are ideas of what a book is, how it works and what it does will change again, and probably just as radically as they did with the advent of the Ottavo.
With highlighting in Kindle, or Findings.com, reading becomes social. This is as radical a shift as the one from reading out loud in a library to reading to yourself wherever you want to was.
There will be other changes as well. eBooks are also changing what it means to be an author, and a publisher too.
In some sense, then, eBooks aren’t books – at least they’re not books in the same way that we’ve been thinking about them for the past 500 years or so. Even when the words are identical, a book is a different thing on an e-reader than it is on paper.
What will the consequences of this be? I don’t know. But there will be significant rewards if you can figure it out, or, better yet, if you can help shape what “book” means when it refers to eBooks.
If you’re looking to create radical innovations, the best place to start is with meaning – that’s where the real action is. Especially if everyone else is still thinking about better, faster, cheaper.
As for me, I’m going to take that Fairbanks book and practice my handwriting. It seems like a skill I could use if I ever get promoted to Reader. And blogging will be something different if I can figure out how to do it with a fountain pen…