Realizing the true potential of digital reading

FILE - In this Feb. 9, 2009 file photo, the Kindle 2 electronic reader is shown at an news conference in New York.
FILE - In this Feb. 9, 2009 file photo, the Kindle 2 electronic reader is shown at an news conference in New York. Apple's new touch-screen "tablet" computer, expected to be unveiled Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010, could give publishers the alternative to they have been craving and give consumers a new way to think about reading books without paper. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, file)

The world of digital reading is, of course, growing rapidly but is this growth fundamentally changing the way we read books, or is it offering us new channels to explore, discover, share and understand on an even greater scale than ever before?

Whether it's talking to friends for book recommendations or joining book clubs to identify with likeminded people, sharing what we read has always played a huge part in passing on knowledge, figuring out who we are and what we're interested in. As we progress through the digital age, we are increasingly reading on smartphones and tablets that are connected to the web. Not only does this open us up to the conveniences of digital purchasing, delivery and storage, but it also allows us to connect with other readers, authors and texts in a virtually limitless fashion.

But how does this affect our reading experiences? Today we're living in a world full of push notifications, at-mentions and chat windows. To talk about our books right from the device that we're reading them on may sound like a potentially intrusive, distracting, and ultimately contradictory digital concept. In reality however, this doesn't have to be the case -- we can still preserve the distraction-free reading experience that we're used to and also harness the benefits of the web. What we have is the possibility of gathering a wealth of information and opinions together at the click of a button -- to expand the experience of reading as much or as little as we want to.

Scribbling notes in the margins of a book, for example, has been an age-old way of passing down thoughts, ideas and theories. Unfortunately in the physical form, these notes are trapped between the pages -- for the bookshelf owner's eyes only. By exploiting the fact that we can be in touch with someone on the other side of the globe in one tap, sharing these shards of brilliance and preserving our thoughts around them has huge potential. We have the very real possibility of creating a rich tapestry of lasting knowledge, pulled from books residing in the hands of different people. Furthermore, by commenting on and interacting with other people's virtual notes, we can also begin to understand our books in new ways and from different cultural stances.

In this way, digital reading is also creating a surprisingly personal landscape for reading discovery, with people discussing and sharing what they read more freely and in a more connected way than ever before. Although machine-based recommendation algorithms pioneered by companies like Amazon use digital tools to good effect, they can never match the emotion, surprise and meaningfulness we feel when these recommendations come from real people. We're already seeing the emergence of this through specific platforms, such as Readmill, which enable recommendations and ideas from likeminded readers and thinkers, wherever in the world they might be. In other words, it's not about just seeing what your Facebook friends are reading -- it's about the book or text itself as the connecting factor.

Of course the sheer potential and scale of this can be overwhelming but we must not forget that each reader still has the control and power to make the digital experience specific to themselves and their interests. Take a budding designer for example -- if he or she is yearning to read a book that will help them improve their craft, digital reading can allow them to look at the 'shelves' of prominent designers, see which books they have read, the best passages inside of them, and their own personal thoughts and feelings. The potential is there to have the world's books and their readers at your fingertips, which you can then filter in the most relevant way to you.

Ultimately then, the future of reading is heavily based on its past -- books have always been read, discussed and shared. It's only now though that we're beginning to realize the ways in which digital reading is really opening up the possibilities of enhancing and extending the reading experience. Stepping outside of our walled gardens and talking to our neighbours is where we see the real push towards a new, exciting evolution in digital reading.

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