Reinventing reading

“Go and re-invent reading!” With that, we were off. It was Wednesday, and I was at MediaLab Prado, participating in their first hackathon aimed at re-defining the book in this digital age. Yes, a bookathon. It was done in the bootcamp style: get to work, and get it done on time. There were about 30 of us: editors, writers, graphic designers, web people, illustrators… We were asked to choose an aspect that interested us ­– distribution, design, accessibility, monetisation, participation – and to work on it together with the others who had chosen the same. I was so lucky with my team, great people, very smart and creative, and I think that we came up with a good idea. We all chose “Shared Reading and Annotation”, and our main innovation was an app that brought together readers, regardless of the format, platform, topic or genre. You can see more about the presented ideas (in Spanish) here, here and here.

the Bookathon team

Interestingly enough, I don’t think that anyone actually re-invented reading, or even reinvented the book. Perhaps I’m being too short-term-istic, but I don’t think that’s possible without redefining reading. We did a pretty good job, however, of pushing the boundaries of what’s already out there. All of the final presentations were innovative, creative and most likely viable. My team did its best to re-invent the social side of reading, while others did an excellent job re-inventing book circulation, personalization and presentation.

So why try to reinvent reading? Because change is inevitable. Reading, and what we read, has changed a staggering amount over the last few years, and will continue to do so. We can wait for others to provoke the changes, nudge them along. Or we can get involved. I know which I think sounds more fun.

As I’ve said before, the book isn’t going anywhere. Uncannily and coincidentally, the Economist magazine this week published a special report on The Future of the Book. The online version is very clever, it’s online but with the format and look of an antique paperback (if you choose the “book” option in the upper menu bar – if you want to, you can read it as a normal web page, but trust me, that’s not nearly as much fun). Even the “pages” are slightly yellowed and stained, and you could have a lot of fun just playing with the page-folding graphics. Even if you don’t want to read it, take a look for the art.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Books are not just “tree flakes encased in dead cow”, as a scholar once wryly put it. They are a technology in their own right, one developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought. And this technology is a powerful, long-lived and adaptable one.” – The Economist, “The Future of the Book” 11/10/14

The key word there is “adaptable”. The book isn’t going anywhere, but siblings and cousins are springing up which give new reading experiences. Book formats will change, distribution will become easier, costs will come down and creativity will never cease to surprise us. I wrote about Olia Lialina’s online story concept last week – we will see more literary work created exclusively for the internet.

future book formats

image from Naxos

The report gets across the message that the demise of the book has long been foretold, yet the book has always proved resilient. The paper book has managed to compete very effectively against the cool, technological digital version: it has very good resolution, it’s as easy or even easier to handle, and it certainly has longer battery life. And human beings generally choose simple, even after playing with complicated for a while. The digital version does let you highlight and change font size and swipe with your finger (I love doing that), but it’s main advantage has been wiped out with the significant increase in cost over the past couple of years. We bought our daughter a Kindle last year, thinking that it would save us money on books (she goes through a staggering amount). It turns out that the digital versions are not very much cheaper. True, you do save on shipping costs, and you get the books faster, but you can’t lend them to a friend very easily.

You can, however, comment and annotate more easily online, which is frustrating for us offline readers. My favourite news and general journalism web sites are Quartz and Medium, for their ease of annotation, in which you comment on specific paragraphs. I would love to be able to engage with other readers about what so-and-so really meant here, where does this statistic come from, don’t you think that this dialogue sounds a bit like the speech in such-and-such? Us paper readers can’t do that.

But, what if we could snap a photograph of what we were reading with our mobile phone, and it would automatically recognize the text and show us, and let us join, web-based annotations from other readers on that same paragraph? Reading offline would no longer leave us out of the conversation. We don’t need access to the entire digital copy of what we’re reading to be able to connect with others. Just the part we want to talk about.

And it’s very possible that the book industry may go the way of the music industry in that, when you buy a physical CD on Amazon, you get the MP3 download for free. You buy the physical book, either in Amazon or in a bookstore (yes! They do still exist!), and you automatically get the MP3 download for free. Maybe books will be printed with QR codes for a one-time download?

That was the gist of the idea that we presented in the Bookathon. Technologically complex, with possible copyright issues and a complicated usability map, but the idea of enhancing the social aspect of reading is a good one. GoodReads is great, but it’s not immediate, it’s not like discussing what you’re reading with your friends, or finding someone who loves the same books that you do. You can communicate and share through GoodReads, but you can’t socialize, it’s still a bit “lonely”.

To quote from the Economist report again:

“Being able to study printed material at the same time as others studied it and to exchange ideas about it sparked the Reformation; it was central to the Enlightenment and the rise of science. No army has accomplished more than printed textbooks have; no prince or priest has mattered as much as “On the Origin of Species”; no coercion has changed the hearts and minds of men and women as much as the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays.

Books read in electronic form will boast the same power and some new ones to boot. The printed book is an excellent means of channelling information from writer to reader; the e-book can send information back as well. Teachers will be able to learn of a pupil’s progress and questions; publishers will be able to see which books are gulped down, which sipped slowly. Already readers can see what other readers have thought worthy of note, and seek out like-minded people for further discussion of what they have read. The private joys of the book will remain; new public pleasures are there to be added.” – The Economist, “The Future of the Book” 11/10/14

I especially love the last phrase, which sums up what we tried to do in the Bookathon: “The private joys of the book will remain; new public pleasures are there to be added.” There is a book for everyone, and few physical objects have as much power to entertain, transport and even change us. Books take us inward, we discover things about ourselves, our past, our future, our world, that we may want to share with others. In this new sharing and social economy, a traditionally private activity is of course going to become more public. In sharing our reading experiences, we help to shape the reading to come.

Books will evolve online and off, and the definition of what counts as one will expand; the sense of the book as a fundamental channel of culture, flowing from past to future, will endure. – The Economist, “The Future of the Book” 11/10/14


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If you want to go deeper into what the future of books looks like (and why wouldn’t you?), I recommend:

The future of books: the next chapter

Sprint Beyond the Book: the future of reading

– the blog of The Future of the Book (started in 2004!!)

And if you want to see even more articles, take a look at my Flipboard magazine “Books and Reading:

Books and Reading on FlipboardThis is my first Storify attempt, on the bookathon, in Spanish (Storify’s surprisingly fun!):

Storify bookathon


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