Today we kick off an occasional series of guest commentaries by Readability friends and neighbors. We believe the new Readability, alongside efforts elsewhere aimed at innovating the reading experience, is part of a broader conversation: the possibilities of fresh thinking around digital content, publishing, and—especially—the future of reading. They are some of the brightest folks we know: help us all take the conversation further.
The last thing any industry wants to get compared to is the music business, but I’m going to start there anyway. If I were to describe the trajectory of music consumption over the last twenty years in a single word, it would not be “free,” but rather “more.”
When I was 11, I enrolled in the Columbia House music scheme, and found myself in debt to my parents for the first of many times. When I was 14, I bought Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana bootlegs with shady Inkjet-printed sleeves and incorrect tracklistings ($35 for a copy of ‘In Uterarities’.) Later, I got a Minidisc player—the less said about that, the better. I ripped, burned, downloaded, misplaced CD binders, burned again, torched hard drives, bought new ones, organized libraries, made mixes. I loved, lost, and loved again.
Now I pay $10 per month to Rdio.com for access to unlimited streaming music online and on my iPhone. They don’t have everything (no Drag City?) so I’m keeping my MP3s, but it’s pretty damn comprehensive. It’s been a long, bumpy road from blowing my allowance money to that recurring $10/mo. charge on my credit card, and I’m excited by Readability precisely because it has the potential to fast-forward us straight to a system that readers might actually have designed themselves. A system in which the transaction occurs silently in the background, the presentation is both attractive and flexible, and the writing is the only thing that matters. More reading—less commerce.
The Phantom Tollbooth
When my friend Max and I started Longform.org last year, we wanted it to be a music blog for non-fiction. Like a great song, a great story should be irrepressible; not the glossy pages of the magazine it was printed in, nor the heavily designed webpage where it comes to rest—but the piece itself. David Foster Wallace’s reporting from the McCain campaign bus? Rolling Stone had it on their site, then tucked behind a paywall without explanation or warning. Just killed the original URL. That URL was, of course, linked to in hundreds of eulogies and housed, to boot, one of the greatest pieces of political journalism in American history. From what I’ve read, Foster-Wallace was a reluctant Internet user, but that didn’t limit his eerie prescience on the topic circa 1996:
Very soon there’s gonna be an economic niche opening up for gatekeepers [.…] Not just of interest but of quality. And then things get real interesting. And we will beg for those things to be there. Because otherwise we’re gonna spend 95 percent of our time body-surfing through shit[.]
In the course of running Longform.org, I’ve repeatedly been asked: “So it’s just a bunch of articles you think are good?” Short answer: yes. Digital reading is in its infancy, and it’s exciting being one of a handful of people curating it at this stage. But I won’t be sad if waves of curator-bloggers erase our little niche. They, no doubt, will unearth far more treasures from the bowels of non-fiction history, and I will salute them for it.
Fifteen years later, our need for a Foster-Wallace-ian gatekeeper remains desperate, but the role has broadened dramatically.
Sure, curators are gatekeepers, but a decade of blogging, tweeting, facebooking, etc. has simplified their task. Our most dire need today is for a gatekeeper that can pull double-duty as a toll-collector, a seemingly simple task that has fractured the entire industry of newspaper and magazine publishing, perhaps irreparably. I won’t guess as to whether Readability’s gate will fail or succeed, but I sincerely believe they’re building it in the right way, and I like it a whole lot better than any of the other gates that have been hastily erected in my path.
It’s certainly more beautiful.
Literary Beer Run
Never before has so much worthwhile writing been instantly available to so many eager readers.
We, as readers and writers, are at a a godamn incredible best-party-you’ve-ever-been-to party. Everyone you know is at this party. Everyone you’ve ever wanted to run into is at this party. It’s a party you wish would never end.
But the party, tragically, is running out of booze.
Here’s what happens next: a few people start complaining, which kind of ruins the vibe, and the crowds starts to trickle out, pretty soon the whole thing is over. So what are we going to do? Realistically, it’s not like all these people are going to tromp down to the store one by one and stock up.
What we need is some guy willing to say “everyone gimme five bucks and I’ll get lots of beer and it’ll all work out for everyone.” That guy is Readability. I’m gonna give that guy five bucks, and I hope you do too. And then, when he comes back, we can all get drunk. On reading!