The fantasy-bots in my iBrain started humming after I read this provocative WSJ essay by Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In it, Carr discusses e-books and the possibility that someday (probably soon) authors will have the power to continually revise, amend, and update their published work. (Imagine, for a second, 154-year-old Joseph Conrad changing the title of Nigger of the Narcissus to, say, N-Word of the N-cissus.)
One line really got me e-magining some of the broader applications e-books and e-readers might have in the near future: "Because e-readers gather enormously detailed information on the way people read, publishers may soon be awash in market research. They'll know how quickly readers progress through different chapters, when they skip pages, and when they abandon a book."
As scarily intrusive as this sounds, knowing which sections of a piece of prose your readers linger over, devour, re-read, or skim could be amazingly useful—not only for the folks on Madison Avenue, but also for writers in writing workshops. The deeper analytical tools of e-reading that Carr hints at, the possibility of tracking a reader's progress through various sections of a manuscript, might be marshaled for more effective use in early drafts of a story or novel, to answer heretofore unknowable questions: On which page did your readers decide to put your story away?
One imagines how these concrete data sets could serve to complement not only the kind of generic feedback one often gets from overly polite workshop peers—but also the kind of subjective pronouncements that bedevil book reviews. Wouldn't it be fascinating to know how slowly or quickly James Wood read The Fortress of Solitude? Perhaps the novel that drew the most bile from a critic was also the one she read faster than most books of similar length. All of which, I think, opens a tomorrow-facing window on how writing and reading might be interacting in the near future. A book can be reading you (and documenting your reading habits) while you're reading it.