Writes books but reads on iPad

Steven Johnson likes the portability of reading devices and having searchable text. Steven Johnson likes the portability of reading devices and having searchable text. (Nina Subin)
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / November 7, 2010

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The author of “The Ghost Map,’’ “Everything Bad Is Good for You,’’ and five other books, Steven Johnson has written about video games, Victorian medical discovery, complex networks, and many other subjects. His latest, “Where Good Ideas Come From,’’ explores the origins of innovation. He spoke to us just after returning home to Brooklyn, N.Y., following a three-week book tour, which included a stop at the Boston Book Festival.

What are you reading?

I tend to read three or four things in rotation. For a book proposal I’m working on, I’m reading books about the battle of Brooklyn: “1776” and Chernow’s Washington biography. And a book written around 1870, kind of the definitive older account.

I’ve also been reading Sam Harris’s book “The Moral Landscape.” There’s a habit of defending science by saying, “Science has nothing to say about moral values; that’s the zone of religion.” He’s saying, “Actually, it does. It’s better than religion at talking about morals.”

Unfortunately, I don’t finish everything. It’s like “American Idol” — only one will get read to the end. But good ideas come from the collisions. For instance, I’m reading about Washington. There was no way he was going to win the battle for Manhattan, so he should have just taken his troops elsewhere. But he decided to stay. Meanwhile, Harris talks about loss aversion: We’re more upset about giving something up than motivated by getting something. So it’s like, “Why did Washington stay?’’ Maybe it’s something about loss aversion.

What percentage of your reading is electronic?

I now always choose to read electronically if I can, for multiple reasons. Portability is one. The ability to pop onto my phone, if I don’t have the iPad; Kindle syncs everything between devices. And having the text digitally. For “The Invention of Air,” Google Books had scans of Joseph Priestley’s books that I could download. You get the original layout, it’s free, and you can carry it around. And it’s searchable, which the book wouldn’t be.

Do you lose anything by giving up physical books?

I honestly don’t think so . . . Well, you lose something in distractibility. Behind that screen is Twitter. And your e-mail. Even in focused reading mode, I’m like, “I read 12 pages! I’d better see if anything happened in the world.” But my job is to think about ideas, so if a thought gets interrupted, I have time to complete it.

The other change in my reading lately is I’ve read more fiction than I have since my 20s. I stopped reading novels for years. Then I turned 40, and suddenly I was like, “I’m so old. I need wisdom.” I read the Franzen book, “Freedom.” I’ve never done book clubs, but I really see the appeal. Because you read a book like that, and it’s as if something tragic or wonderful has happened in your own life. Of course you want to talk to your friends. Who else wants to talk about what happened with Patty?!

Despite competition for our time, do books still have an important role to play?

This is the irony of my career. I spend so much time embracing new technologies, but the thing I love best is the book. When you give people 60,000 words of your thoughts, and they listen to them and spark their own ideas or get inspired or annoyed — it’s an incredible experience. Occasionally you’ll see a documentary film that does it, but 99 percent of the time, public debate about an issue gets sparked by a book. Books just do that better than anything else.

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