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Get Out Your Hammocks

The “summer reading” issue is a hardy perennial for popular magazines, from Oprah to The New Yorker to The Economist. No wonder: Few delights compare to lingering with a fine book in the long light of a June evening. And few satisfactions are as great as finding and recommending the perfect match of title to friend. The meditative absorption of sitting alone in a cone of lamplight, lost to time and responsibility; the sense of entering an alternate world, of new ideas flooding in — the pleasures of reading remain unchanged since the days of Gutenberg.

Or do they? The advent of digital media has altered the reading experience in profound ways, and not just with 24-hour free shipping. In a scant decade, we have developed algorithms that predict our preferences with eerie precision, cross-media mash-ups that incorporate video and sound into text, fan fiction that allows readers to write their own alternate endings, and seminars that offer paid access to authors and their expertise. All these innovations tear at the exclusive relationship between reader and page.

A few years ago Penguin Books released an “amplified” edition of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road for the iPad, whereby readers can click through for audio clips of Kerouac interviews, pages from his journals, correspondence with his editors, and previously unseen family photos. They can view the original scroll Kerouac used to write his manifesto, and even follow the route of Kerouac’s merry band on an interactive map. As of this writing, The New York Times best-seller list includes three titles that languished in relative obscurity until they became TV shows or films.

We can lament how these disruptive technologies are destroying our attention spans, to say nothing of the independent bookstore. But one trend, toward so-called visual literature, offers important new opportunities for architecture and other graphic domains. In “Digital doorway,” Anne Whiston Spirn lauds the experience of e-publishing her latest collection of essays and photographs, seeing a renaissance for the richly illustrated book.

The Internet’s infinite, democratic space is posing a challenge to the familiar — and costly — professional journal, whether in medicine or business or architecture. According to the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, “the upstart online journal ArchDaily recently surpassed the leading print publications and became the venue of choice for the world’s top practitioners to display their work.” The proliferation of design blogs, some of them excellent, is upending traditional architecture criticism, giving us more opinions but less consensus.

What’s happening is a kind of deconstruction. Social media sites have made possible the linking and sharing of snippets of text, excerpted and annotated sometimes within hours of the original publication. The unmediated experience, once the only way to read, now takes a special effort. Fittingly, some of the visual artists whose work we feature in this issue use books as a medium, slicing and dicing them into new sculptural forms.

Since this is ArchitectureBoston, we review several books on the topic. But our summer reading issue is also very much about space. We examine favorite reading rooms, the surprising resilience and evolving architecture of the public library, how an author builds a structural arc of theme and plot. Russell Maret, in “A note on the type,” limns the relationship between solid and void.

Of course, the most important space is inside our heads. Opening the mind to new ways of thinking matters far more than whether the ideas are delivered by pixel or page. Distractions have always been a temptation; it isn’t fair to blame technology for our own lack of focus. Summer is a time to unplug, slow down, eat raspberries fresh off the vine. Only we can give our thoughts the time and the space they need to ripen.  ■

Renée Loth
Editor