Friday, January 23, 2015

Zuckerberg’s Year of Reading Copiously

One of my New Year’s resolutions, besides resolving to actually commit to New Year’s resolutions, is to shift more of my media diet toward reading books. Imagine my surprise, then, when social media magnate Mark Zuckerberg himself began the New Year by announcing, “I'm looking forward to shifting more of my media diet toward reading books.”

My resolution stemmed from my growing dissatisfaction with myself for spending an inordinate amount of time scanning the internet for interesting reading, while leaving myself less and less time to settle down with interesting reading from a veritable skyscraper of unread books accumulating at home. It was adversely affecting my attention span, my patience, my capacity for self-reflection, my very sense of time and space, etc. – all the usual mental and psychological changes people experience who allow themselves to be caught in the gravitational pull of the black hole of the internet.

I don’t know whether Mark Zuckerberg came to a similar realization, but in any case, he explained that “I've found reading books very intellectually fulfilling. Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today.”

This isn’t exactly a revelation for those of us who have always found books fulfilling (and not only intellectually, but creatively, emotionally, and spiritually as well), but it may come as one for countless young people who admire Zuckerberg and who have grown up on social media and the internet, young people whose experience with books has been limited to uninspiring school assignments – that is, if schools actually assign books to be read anymore, and if students actually bother to finish them.

And so Zuckerberg posted a challenge that he plans to embrace in 2015 and in which he urges Facebook followers to join him: the creation of a book club community on a dedicated Facebook page called A Year of Books. “We will read a new book every two weeks and discuss it here,” he stated. “Our books will emphasize learning about new cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.”

His first selection was The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be by Moises Naim. With a title reminiscent of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (coincidentally, Fukuyama himself provided a blurb for Naim’s book), The End of Power explores the decay and dispersion of centralized power in the arenas of business, religion, education, family, “and in all matters of war and peace.”

The thesis of this book notwithstanding, Mark Zuckerberg’s own power – his power to influence – is far from being in decline. His recommendations could potentially steer hundreds of thousands of Facebookers toward any books and ideas he chooses to support and disseminate. This could make him the book guru that Oprah Winfrey used to be, when her television book club suggestions created instant bestsellers and national conversations about them.

Zuckerberg’s Year of Books page got off to a roaring start with a quarter of a million “likes,” and at least 50,000 people signed up to read The End of Power along with him. To give you some sense of comparison: by most estimates, it takes fewer than 10,000 copies of a book sold in the first week to guarantee a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Fifty thousand sales would make The End of Power a blockbuster.

But in what may have been a portent of disinterest to come, The End of Power sold only 13,000 copies after its selection. That was still enough to propel the book overnight into Amazon’s top 10 books from its previous rank of 45,140th. But the book club itself kicked off not with a bang but with a whimper: a Facebook Q&A with Zuckerberg and the author Naim that lured fewer than 200 participants into the online chat, and not all of those had even read the book. The Washington Post deemed it “a pretty lame start.”

What went wrong? The Post speculated that for technical reasons, ironically, Facebook isn’t the best venue for such a Q&A. It’s also difficult for the average Facebooker to keep up the biweekly pace, particularly with tomes that make for fairly heavy reading (Zuckerberg’s second selection, just announced, is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which weighs in at over 800 pages). 

It’s too early for a postmortem on A Year of Books, but Zuckerberg may have to find creative ways to keep the ambitious book club’s vital signs from flatlining. If he can pull that off – and I’m rooting for him, actually – while maintaining the intellectual quality of the selections, his project may have a significant influence on the reading habits of social media fans, many of whom might not otherwise come out of Facebook’s black hole long enough to sit down with an actual book.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/23/15)