It might seem odd that a book about vaginas inspired a different way to blog, but that’s the honest truth.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how you might innovate when it comes to writing. It still irritates me that the overwhelming majority of the web is formatted in exactly the same way – rectangular containers interspersed by padded images. Consider how dull that is compared to the layout in any glossy magazine.  Sure, I understand why the web sticks to that format, but it doesn’t make it any less boring to use.

Anyway, back to innovation. One of the ideas that’s been floating around my head for a long time is whether you could liberate a blog from a distinct URL. I think that the web is moving in that direction anyway: look at the explosive growth of Twitter, a microblogging website at its heart. You can curate feeds and gather hashtagged posts in such a way that a metablog on any subject is generated – it doesn’t have a distinct URL or even a title, but it’s a blog of sorts nonetheless.

My own  Twitter stream – the collected posts of the people I follow – dictates not only a huge percentage of what I’ll read on the web every day, but also the discussion of it. There’s already plenty of discussion out there about the filter bubble, and my thought is this: what if a blog could be a filter through which you experience the web, rather than a place that you visit.

So, back to vaginas. Or more precisely, Vagina, Naomi Wolf’s paen to the female organ. A popsci book that was heavy on the pop and rather liberal with the sci, it topped the bestseller charts but also earned Wolf a great deal of criticism for some of the book’s more outlandish claims.

For a week or two, my Twitter feed was saturated in talk about Wolf’s Vagina,  and some very good writers debunked those claims in well-written articles. But when I visited the book’s sales page on Amazon, there were only three reviews, all of them positive, none of them from friendly neuroscientists*. This made me wonder whether there was a disconnect between those reading Wolf’s book and those critiquing it. What’s the point of dissembling neuro-nonsense if those who’d benefit most wouldn’t see it?

Around the same time I was also getting to grips with a new Kindle. One of the features is that you can make lengthy margin notes and highlights to any book that you’re reading. More interestingly, you can choose to make these notes available to subscribers, so that they see your notes written into the margins of their copy of the book. Subscribers can find you directly or through a social network such as Twitter.

So here’s an idea: why not take all the best blogposts about Vagina, and embed those criticisms directly into the text of the ebook version? When you think about it, that’s a phenomenal coup. For the longest time, the only way to critique a book was from the outside – by writing somewhere else and hoping to pick up some of the same readers. But now you can invade an author’s own work.

OK, so it’s not perfect. You still have to convince people to subscribe to your notes. But I think one of the advantages is that you can’t simply denigrate and attack – if you want your service to add value to a subscriber’s reading you have to respect that reader. I think a ‘science companion’ Kindle Notes would be a really cool development – meeting people halfway and reading with them, as it were. Highlighting the good parts of a book as well as the bad – because no book is all one or the other.

The concept of augmenting books is pretty neat, even when you move beyond debunking dodgy neuroscience. Imagine a Kindle Notes account that appended notes to classic texts – Darwin’s Origin of Species, say – to update the bits we’ve revised or add context to historical events. That’s not really a new idea – publishers have been adding footnotes to books for a long time – but now the power is in the hands of anyone who wants to add sleeve notes on whatever niche point of view or topic they desire. That’s pretty cool.

* There are several reviews now, one which does discuss the book’s bad science. So maybe that’s another place you could blog, the comments section…

Main image cc zitona


  1. #1 Adam
    December 28, 2012

    I agree this would be totally cool. Often I’ve been reading a book and wanted to know instantly what others thought of a certain passage or claim. It would be great to see sensible blogs and notes embedded.

    However, while Kindle is great for reading, it sucks at taking notes. You’re limited to scrolling through a keyboard selecting one letter at a time which is too cumbersome to be used. I’ve only just got one, so I might be missing something – let me know if I am (I have the kind without the qwerty keyboard, obvs). This might be an obstacle.

  2. #2 Neuroskeptic
    December 28, 2012

    I think that’s a great idea and would love it if someone made it happen (I have no idea how to code something like that.) But I feel you’re being pessimistic about the reach of the blogposts and reviews: if you Google “naomi wolf vagina” about half the front page hits are criticisms of it, and I bet most people who are considering buying the book will Google it first.

  3. #3 Ben Taylor
    United Kingdom
    December 28, 2012

    Seth had this idea re release two of the kindle – surprised there isn’t still some better cross-aggregating content system that would link amazon reviews with newspaper reviews, blog comments, twitter etc – or is that just Google?

  4. #4 Brendon
    January 2, 2013

    Great ideas Frank – get them in action before someone nicks them! (*sneaks off to call Amazon…*)

  5. #5 Ben
    January 4, 2013

    Augmenting books has been on my mind for some time. Marginalia can often be very useful. However, their implementation in ebooks is often clunky at best. The potential for innovation is there. Writing and sharing marginalia can turn the act of reading a book into a rich conversation between readers (shall we call it ‘social reading’?) Imagine being able to highlight a particular passage in a text and viewing what other people have written about that passage – their comments and critiques. Imagine if you could instantly search for blog posts, papers, and books that are related to the topic covered by that piece of text. I think this would greatly enhance the reading experience, and would create an environment where readers can easily produce and share their own content.

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