I am continuing to build on a summary of Baldur Bjarnason's call to "make eBooks worth it". Last week, I looked at what Bjarnason calls a “more peer-like, less hierarchical, relationship between the reader and writer". In this post, I'd like to consider his argument for “a more symmetrical relationship between reading and writing.”
In his originating post, Bjarnason adds that “reading, annotations, quotes and more should feed directly into writing systems.” The systems side of the equation was covered in last Friday’s post, which called for a more focused move “toward annotated, threaded mesh of book content”.
The human part of things is proving a bit more difficult. When it comes to writing, editing and publishing content, we are still developing an “architecture of collaboration” around what it means to create among peers.
Some of the language we use to describe writing reinforces the notion that creation is an individual act. Images persist of writers toiling away for years in small, cluttered garrets. We think of writers (and editors) with solo, sometimes silent “eureka” moments, critical points at which great ideas are born.
And then there’s reality.
Before we are writers, we are all readers. Our early writings emulate, crib, maybe even copy the work of others. We stand, by design and often enough without attribution, on the shoulders of giants. (This thought cribbed from Richard Nash, who would probably say he'd borrowed parts of it from others.)
November 19 marked the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a speech given by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln at the site of one of the Civil War’s most deadly battles. The speech, just ten sentences long, is considered a pre-eminent example of English-language prose.
Lincoln wrote it, and several drafts persist to this day. There is no record of the speech, other than a transcription of the remarks made by someone attending. Even this version is somewhat disputed.
What is not disputed: Lincoln borrowed from or was inspired by others in creating some of the speech’s most memorable phrases. The precise sources are debated, with scholars and observers citing Pericles’ Funeral Oration and the King James Bible as well as the works of abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, U.S. senator Daniel Webster and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court John Marshal.
Lincoln deserves credit for the language he used, but were he among us today, he would not claim that it was his alone. He knew how to do what we all do: reach back to older texts to find a way to shed light on our own times. We borrow and amend to make the known relevant to a new world, one that grew out of the older ones.
This practice isn’t new; it is as old as storytelling itself. In a commercial age, we’ve moved to a structure of ownership and copyrights. Those agreements have their place, but interpreting them as protecting an individual’s work has dampened opportunity for interaction and innovation. Developing a new architecture, one of collaboration, won’t replace copyright, but it is sure to broaden it.