“You Really Gonna Read That?”

Last year I wrote about digital content in the classroom and software that makes it possible for college professors to track students’ reading habits. And of course, it’s a short hop from academics to writers in the wider publishing industry. Who doesn’t want to know what makes a reader keep turning the page all the way to the end of the book? And there are some “general insights” which will surprise nobody:

Scribd is just beginning to analyze the data from its subscribers. Some general insights: The longer a mystery novel is, the more likely readers are to jump to the end to see who done it. People are more likely to finish biographies than business titles, but a chapter of a yoga book is all they need. They speed through romances faster than religious titles, and erotica fastest of all.

At Oyster, a top book is “What Women Want,” promoted as a work that “brings you inside a woman’s head so you can learn how to blow her mind.” Everyone who starts it finishes it. On the other hand, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Cycles of American History” blows no minds: fewer than 1 percent of the readers who start it get to the end.

I can see this being hugely useful for writers. But you know I’m going to point out the flip side, right?

The services say they will make the data anonymous so readers will not be identified. The privacy policies however are broad. “You are consenting to the collection, transfer, manipulation, storage, disclosure and other uses of your information,” Oyster tells new customers.

Right.

And that’s a general insight that surprises me not. To say nothing of the old “XYZ wouldn’t get published today” debate, which is a whole other can of worms. No, I mostly wonder about what it does to our desire to explore literature if we know we’re being watched. I know a lot of women, and men, who would never have read “50 Shades” if they’d thought about their reading habits being tracked. And a lot of people who may never have picked up more controversial books considered important and erudite reading — The Satanic Verses, Beloved, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Or for that matter, the Quran and all things Islamic just after 9/11?

Who knows, maybe this, more than anything else, is what’ll keep old fashioned books alive. The desire to read without being tracked. And when not enough of us continue to plunk down cash for the dead tree, and the last bookstores close up shop, perhaps we’ll go back to the very beginning: story tellers, a live audience, and nothing but the moment.

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