The novelist Hari Kunzru has a concern. And no, it isn't about the death of publishing. Or piracy, or plagiarism, or even the thought of computers writing novels all by themselves. In fact, in his keynote speech this month for “Writing in a Digital Age”, the Literary Consultancy’s two-day conference for aspiring writers, Kunzru eschewed the industry’s usual worries in favour of a paean to the internet’s linguistic and formal possibilities. A longstanding technophile, Kunzru revels in the weird "loops of language" created by translating passages with online software and the "found languages" of corporate jargon, graffiti and text speak. But he did strike one warning note: beware the narrowing of our reading tastes thanks to personalised online feeds.
Earlier this year Ian Leslie wrote a piece for Intelligent Life about the "filter bubble", Eli Pariser's phrase, which said that the internet’s top five—Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, YouTube and Microsoft—were using personalised data filtering to create a "you loop" in which serendipitous discoveries are replaced by commercial prompts designed to keep us inside our comfort zone. There’s been lots of discussion about the political dangers of what Kunzru calls "the myopic self", but there has been little about its impact on how we choose and buy books.
Theoretically, there's never been a better time to be an adventurous reader, but despite all those self-published writers, boutique publishers and specialist booksellers, I don’t think I’m the only one struggling to translate this theory into reality. When it comes to deciding what to read next, I find myself caught between a paralysing ocean of choice and endless recommendations for E.L. James's' "Fifty Shades of Grey". I end up re-reading Dorothy Dunnett’s "King Hereafter" for the tenth time—11th-century Orkney being firmly within my comfort zone.