On the future of books

Books will disappear. Print is where words go to die

Yet efforts to update the book are hampered because, culturally, we give extreme reverence to the form for the form’s sake. We hold books holy: children are taught there is no better use of time than reading a book. Academics perish if they do not publish. We tolerate censors regulating and snipping television but would never allow them to black out books. We even ignore the undeniable truth that too many books, and far too many bestsellers, are pap or crap. All this might seem to be the medium’s greatest advantage: respect. But that is what is holding books back from the progress that could save and spread the gospel of the written word. Yet efforts to update the book are hampered because, culturally, we give extreme reverence to the form for the form’s sake. We hold books holy: children are taught there is no better use of time than reading a book. Academics perish if they do not publish. We tolerate censors regulating and snipping television but would never allow them to black out books. We even ignore the undeniable truth that too many books, and far too many bestsellers, are pap or crap. All this might seem to be the medium’s greatest advantage: respect. But that is what is holding books back from the progress that could save and spread the gospel of the written word.

Today, any medium that defines itself by its medium is in trouble: newspapers, broadcasting and books must be valued for their substance over their shape. Is a book bound paper? Or is it the ideas and information within? If there are better ways to share knowledge, why should it suffer the limitations of the page?

Books are frozen in time, yet in digital form, they can live in never-ending editions. Short of footnotes and bibliographies, books have little connection to related sources and debates; online, the simple link solves that. You cannot link straight to an idea in a book, nor search for it – though Google could fix that, if only publishers would let them. Hear Ben Vershbow of the Institute for the Future of the Book in the current Library Journal: “Parts of books will reference parts of other books. Books will be woven together out of components in remote databases and servers.” And Kevin Kelly: “In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.”

Geeks such as myself have been heralding the coming age of eBooks for at least a decade now.

On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer. Text, after all, is the simplest data that you can send across the net. You can send an entire copy of War And Peace across the net in seconds even on the slowest of connections, whereas a full length movie still takes several to transmit hours even on the quickest of connections. Digital copies of books should have been a cinch even in the earliest days of the internet.

Yet the eBook revolution never came. There is no iPod for eBooks, you still can’t buy a book digitally, heck, they’re not even pirated much. Many reasons have been offered for why this is (usually it’s something like “The stars haven’t quite aligned yet, but any day now…”), but I think there’s a larger point that’s often missed.

And that point is this: The eBook revolution did come. The problem is that no one noticed it because no one recognized it.

When you look at attempts to do eBooks today, I notice that a lot of effort is put into duplicating the look and feel of a dead tree book. Everything from the font and formatting to having to flip a digital page is preserved. And to be honest, I’ve always scratched my head a bit and wondered why exactly they bother.

I read books online every day. Only they’re not called books, they’re called web pages. You scroll them instead of flip pages. Formatting is adjusted to your screen rather than remaining fixed. They don’t have chapters and page numbers, but rather they have URL’s.

eBooks, digital texts, have been around for a long, long time and will only continue to grow. The author of the article is absolutely right when he says that books are defined by their medium. Page flipping is an artifact of printing on paper, it’s not something that needs to be preserved for digital viewing. The thing about the digital books of the future is that they won’t look at all like the dead tree books of today. People looking for an eBook revolution are hung up on the idea that a book must look like bound paper – they don’t realize that this blog here is as much a book as anything you can find in Barnes & Noble.

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One Response to “On the future of books”

  1. jmnlman Says:

    interesting except this begs the obvious question. How’s anyone going to make money? As Samuel Johnson put it “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. “

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