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Five Minutes With: Marcus Gilroy-Ware, academic and creator, Smartest

As readers depend on the internet to consume smaller pieces of information, reading a book – for those who use ‘new’ media alone – could become “a more unusual skill”. Will “reading a book” become a skill associated with taste, and thus, class? Marcus Gilroy-Ware, creator of open source online publishing platform, Smartest, and co-founder of digital storytelling pioneer Not On The Wires, speculates on the future of books. Gilroy-Ware is Visiting Lecturer, Online Journalism at City University. He is currently completing a Masters in Law (QLD) at Birkbeck School of Law, University of London.

Marcus Gilroy-Ware (pictured, left) with Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software movement, the GNU Project, at Goldsmiths University, on 3 Nov 2011. Stallman came to London to present the talk, “It’s Free Software and It GIves You Freedom”. Photo: ©Salina Christmas using iPhone

Q: What do you think will become of books?

To put it in a sort of cynical, neoliberal way, the book as a collection of publishing formats will exist as long as there is a cultural and economic demand for reading them. So the question really is, what will become of reading books? I suspect we’ll always have books, but precisely what we call a ‘book’ may change – it is a long-form text; a monograph, or is it a thing with pages, a cover and a spine? Do we define book as a type of container or a type of content? or both? I suspect the two may have divergent futures. For example, did you know the most published ‘book’ ever is the Ikea catalogue?

Q: You mentioned during our last conversation that reading the physical book will be a unique type of skill, distinct from the skill required to read using other forms of media. Do you think, like what Bourdieu (1984) observes with gait, speech and mannerism, “reading a physical book” will make up part of that social or cultural capital that demarcates us into social classes? Similar to, say, the ability to play a musical instrument or to participate in a certain type of sport?

Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, is said to be the “Silent Spring for the literary mind” by Slate writer Michael Agger. Image source:

This was just a thought that occurred to me on the fly, so I (or someone) would need to do a bit of work to think this through and research it a bit. But I suppose a sort of worst-case scenario would be that, as Nicholas Carr says (ironically in his book), we as a society lose the ability to focus on books and long-form texts and arguments because of our ability to use the internet to find much smaller pieces of information or narratives.

If this were to happen, it seems unlikely that the ability to read a book would disappear altogether. Much more likely would be that people who need to be able to read books continue to, but those who can depend on ‘new’ media alone – ie the mainstream – lose the skill. So in that sense reading books could become a more unusual skill.

The reference to Bourdieu is interesting. Obviously this is highly speculative but it’s not clear to me whether it would go that route and be a function of class, or be something more like sewing, cooking, or identifying common bird and tree species – something anybody could do and everybody used to be able to do, but which most people are now averse to. In any case, this is something we can still fight. Children are the future and we need to get them confident and interested in reading books.

Q: What is your favourite book? By author/photographer, designer or publisher?

My favourite book? That’s a tough one. I love To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, or Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. In non-fiction I’d have to say Code 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig has probably given me more to think about than most. Oh and George Orwell’s non-fiction stuff – Homage to Catalonia and Down and Out in Paris and London.

Q: What was the last book you read? Or published!

Haven’t published a book yet but it’s on the way. More about that soon!

Q: Finally: Kindle, PDF, HTML – or print?

I mostly either do PDFs on my iPad or print – ie ‘real’ books. I have a love-hate relationship with browser-based HTML reading (which is the subject of ongoing research of mine), and I don’t own a kindle.; Twitter: @mjgw

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