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Book Box | AI is reshaping how we read

Dear Reader,

Here are the top four reads that trace the history and science of reading(The Author)

“I asked ChatGPT to write a story of a romance in Muzaffarnagar, it named the protagonists David and Daisy and had them eat cupcakes – the story was so stilted, no nuances, no emotional authenticity, we writers don’t have anything to fear”, says novelist Meghna Pant.

“That’s because Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not addressing that particular problem. For now,” warns Tanuj Solanki, insurance man by day, and novelist by night.

We are sitting at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, talking about the transformative impact of AI and algorithms on reading and writing. On the panel are two novelists, a ghostwriter, a podcaster and a non-fiction writer.

The author (centre) at the NGMA, Mumbai, discussing digital literature(The Author)
The author (centre) at the NGMA, Mumbai, discussing digital literature(The Author)

“The publishing gatekeepers are gone, everyone wants to tell their own story, I get way more requests for ghostwritten books than I can possibly work on”, says Gayatri Pahlajani, the expert ghostwriter.

“Attention spans are down, only three seconds to hook viewers and ten seconds to tell the whole story”, says Mansi Zaveri, startup founder and podcaster. The era of co-creation with machines is upon us. ChatGPT shapes the content we consume, while AI orchestrates film scenes designed to draw out our deepest emotions as per a McKinsey report. It feels dystopian.

Yet even as we scroll, skim, and detour into distracting hyperlinks, we also seek human connections as readers and writers, joining reading communities, attending literary festivals, looking for offbeat books and listening to audiobooks, we conclude.

Post the conversation, I dive into the history and science of reading, unearthing patterns and paradoxes – here are my top four reads.

Book 1 of 4: A Silicon Valley Reading Quest

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan(The Author)
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan(The Author)

A bookstore in San Fransisco is the setting for this feel-good adventure. Clay, a young bookstore clerk and his friends go on a quest that combines the old literary world of print fonts and hidden manuscripts, with the digital world. Author Robin Sloan worked at Twitter, and he uses the tech backdrop effectively in a tale that is tall with popular tropes, with frequent nods to Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code.

Bookstore stories are always special, but what made this stand apart for me, was how the new and the old both live on, as old man Mr Penumbra works with Clay’s geeky Googler friend Kat. And just when you think technology will trump, and be the key to the mystery, the book throws a twist. That yes, the human mind can still win.

Book 2 of 4: The History of Reading

The History of Reading by Alberto Manguel(The Author)
The History of Reading by Alberto Manguel(The Author)

This set of interlinked essays on reading is such a classic – it’s chatty and yet so erudite. Alberto Manguel begins with scrolls and the history of writing and reading. We meet Aristotle and Gutenberg and travel from Egypt and Greece to medieval Europe, America and China. We listen to Manguel’s personal stories and his reflections on everything from translating books to stealing them!

Reading books was once frowned upon because it made your eyes weak, just as reading on screens today is seen as harmful for today’s readers. Reading A History of Reading makes me hopeful for the future, books and reading have always gone through technological & societal change, so we will change as a society but we will still read.

Book 3 of 4: Reading in Electronic Times

Book Was There by Andrew Piper(The Author)
Book Was There by Andrew Piper(The Author)

In Book was There, Canadian academic Andrew Piper looks at the history of reading by examining how humans interact with books and their digital counterparts. He uses various prisms like note-taking and annotation methods and ‘sharing’, with interesting observations about how in the past, books were tied to library tables or locked behind glass doors; today, Kindle ebooks are just licensed, not owned. Piper’s book lacks the soul-stirring scintillation of Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, yet its closer engagement with the digital form of reading makes it relevant.

Book 4 of 4: Changing Language

Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch(The Author)
Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch(The Author)

Because Internet is a great book for understanding how the Internet is changing language. McCulloch looks at how tone and structure are changing. She traces the connections between hashtags and viral content, the history of memes, and examines punctuation. As an enthusiastic adopter of the emoji, I found that chapter fascinating – one instance being that emojis signify active listening, packing in emotions like ‘I feel you’.

And finally, four tech tips to get the most out of your digital reading.

  1. Highlight and take notes – Digital reading lets you highlight and note without guilt. Apps like Readwise syncs your Kindle notes and even send you a daily email collating your highlights.
  2. Aggregate the links to read later– Ever got sucked into the online rabbit hole of hyperlinks? Pocket and Instapaper save you from that vortex – you can simply save features you want to read for later.
  3. Using Voice to Text to record book reviews – Use the voice transcription option on Google Docs or Evernote to turn your words into text, as you record your takeaways from your latest book, and speak aloud your thoughts on themes, characters and settings.
  4. Set Up Digital bookshelves – Tag, sort, and organize your reads. Mood? Genre? Or Year Wise? You can do all of these on apps like GoodReads and Storywise.

That’s all for this week. Hope you enjoy these recommendations. And if you are off to buy gifts for the upcoming rakhi festival, here are some book gift ideas for brothers and sisters.

Until next week, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

The views expressed are personal

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