We needn't reinvent books – but they can be smarter

I've never been much of a reader. That might sound a bit odd since I've spent approximately 11 years of my life studying English literature at multiple universities. But who knows if I'd been more assiduous about ploughing through worthy nineteenth-century works, I might have done it in six.

At any rate, I've never been someone who gets easily immersed in a text. I find it hard even to get started. Back in February, when sister title PC Pro's erstwhile news editor Stuart Turton published his debut novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I bought a hardback copy on launch day and then, to make it as easy as possible for myself to actually read it, I bought it on Kindle as well.

To my shame, I haven't yet opened either. It's not that I don't think I'll enjoy it by all accounts it's an excellent work. It's just that I never seem to find myself in the mood to sit down and get stuck into a long-form fiction.

I mention this because of an interesting Twitter conversation that recently came to my attention which is to say, it was randomly retweeted into my timeline on a Sunday morning, as these things tend to be. The spark of it was a few bright young things who had been looking at ebooks and asking why they weren't more whizzy and interactive: in the words of one contributor, "I want social highlights, notes, flashcards and fractal readings".

Now, if you think this sounds like a ghastly millennial fantasy, I couldn't agree more. As several respondents pointed out, the value of literature is precisely in getting away from "social highlights" and the like.

And yet I can't entirely disagree with the premise. I've often felt that ebooks are rather disappointing: even on the top-of-the-range Kindle you lose the physical and visual substance of a real book, in exchange for nothing more inspiring than convenience.

What's more, if I'm honest, I'd be a lot more likely to get stuck into a big book if it were a bit more interactive. I remember the joy of checking a tome out from my old university library and finding that a previous reader had in exhilaratingly flagrant contravention of the rules written their own notes in the margins. My afternoon's reading was no longer a passive, linear experience: now there was a conversation going on, as my anonymous predecessor and I discussed the work before us.

Sometimes this would be enlightening; at other times, I would find satisfaction in disagreeing with their stupid, superficial interpretations. Either way, it was almost always a more engaging experience than the usual unidirectional one.

I guess it makes sense that I nowadays spend a large proportion of my life on Twitter, because the dynamic is quite similar. News and opinions come down the line with responses tacked right onto them; I experience the world not as a mere string of events but as a dialogue. As I've mentioned, one such dialogue inspired this very column.

But I have to wonder: if Twitter is Twitter, do books need to be Twitter as well? I've written in the past about how habit-forming I find that particular social platform, and studies suggest that this sort of engagement, where we're constantly hopping from idea to idea, isn't great for our mental health. Perhaps it's better not to go overboard on gratification: I love crisps, but I don't eat them every day (not any more).

What I hope is that perhaps we can find a middle ground, because there is a place for a social aspect to literature. As I slogged through my postgraduate reading lists and believe me, the Victorians were never ones to write a sentence where a paragraph would do I frequently found myself wondering exactly how a certain phrase or passage would have resonated with a contemporary reader. If such a reader had been somehow able to footnote their own comments and responses to the text, it might have opened a treasure trove of understanding and spared me a lot of research. (This doesn't just apply to Victoriana: even when I read modern books I often find myself wondering whether I'm missing something.)

So why don't we make a start? The Amazon Kindle platform already allows you to attach "public notes" to ebooks, for other readers to peruse. Right now the feature is quite limited, and perhaps for that reason not very well known. The idea of tapping out your thoughts on an E ink screen isn't very inviting either, although these days Amazon has a rather good speech-to-text system, don't you know.

And yes, there are other issues that need addressing. Presentation and discoverability are big ones, as is quality control although perhaps requiring commenters to say their words out loud would discourage the most brainless submissions. There's also the practical question of who owns and stores the data: we don't want this budding repository of crowdsourced wisdom to be locked up on a proprietary platform, but The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is already pretty long, and allowing all and sundry to tack on their thoughts would see it rapidly balloon into a multi-terabyte database.

Even so, this I can see as an idea worth pursuing. One thing I definitely learnt from my studies was that conventional literature can far outlive the shared assumptions and understandings that underpin it. Precisely because it has that stature, and that lasting power, I think it's worth defending. Rather than trying to disrupt our literary heritage, let's harness the potential of ebooks to inform and contextualise it: readers a hundred years hence will thank us for it.

Darien Graham-Smith

Darien began his IT career in the 1990s as a systems engineer, later becoming an IT project manager. His formative experiences included upgrading a major multinational from token-ring networking to Ethernet, and migrating a travelling sales force from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95.

He subsequently spent some years acting as a one-man IT department for a small publishing company, before moving into journalism himself. He is now a regular contributor to IT Pro, specialising in networking and security, and serves as associate editor of PC Pro magazine with particular responsibility for business reviews and features.

You can email Darien at darien@pcpro.co.uk, or follow him on Twitter at @dariengs.