The future of books: the next chapter

I’m currently reading a novel on an iPad for the first time. (Jane Eyre, since you asked, can you believe that I managed to get all the way through school and university without ever having read it? I didn’t think that it sounded like my kind of thing at all, but it turns out I’m loving it, which shows that perhaps I could work on being a bit more open-minded. But I digress.).

As I’ve said before, I like e-reading for non-fiction, because you can highlight and search easily. But, on the whole, and definitely for pleasure reading, I prefer paper. I’m not saying that e-books don’t have advantages. In this particular case, one big advantage is that Jane Eyre was free on the Project Gutenberg. However, for choice, give me heft and texture and bookmarks that I can never find when I want to mark my place and put the book down.


That said, the development of new ways of enjoying books on tablets is fascinating. The genre of fiction is broadening, the boundaries of what we know as reading are becoming blurred, and the definition of what is a book is not as clear as it used to be.

This video from IDEO labs shows three different ways of enjoying and sharing books on connected devices. These ideas are conceptual, as far as I know the apps were never actually distributed, but they are worth looking at and thinking about as we re-think the role of books and information in our lives.

Nelson helps us to put a book in context, by showing us references to the work, revealing the sources, and showing us the impact it has had on the work of others or even on social media. It suggests related reading, and has the potential to deepen our engagement with the book through highlighting the parts that others found interesting or controversial. Could that make us more superficial readers, dependent on being “fed” ideas and relevant concepts to think about? Perhaps. Or it could help us to see things that we wouldn’t see otherwise, to engage more deeply with some of the book’s ideas through the chance to discuss them with others. These others will probably have a different view, which would end up broadening ours. For me, the aspect of this idea with the most potential is the placing of a book in a larger context, making it easier to see its cultural impact. We no longer see the book as just a case for its content.

Copeland is innovative not so much for its book sharing function (although bear in mind the video was made four years ago, before Goodreads became Goodreads), but more for the community. The idea is you share your reading preferences with your work colleagues, you see what they are reading, the company can make you feel special by downloading your favourite books for the virtual library. Reading is an activity we usually undertake in isolation. It’s just you and your book. This idea stretches a book’s “usefulness”, turning it into a social conduit, an opener of relationships and a deepener of conversations. Are we really that interested in sharing our reading preferences with our colleagues? Do we really want them to know the real us? Do we really think that their “public” reading lists show the real them? Probably not, but no-one said that we had to share everything on social media, nor that we had to take others’ public confessions as the whole truth. However, sharing some of our tastes is an opportunity for connection, for bonding and for making friends. My 12-year-old daughter said to me the other day: “When I see someone reading a book that I liked, it’s like the book is introducing us.” Reading is a personal experience, and a book is interpreted differently by each reader. But a book can also be a social tool, and sharing can broaden our understanding and our interests. Again, we no longer see the book as just a case for its content.

the future of books

Alice is perhaps the most creatively “disruptive” idea of the three. The book becomes interactive. You become part of the action. It’s not about getting your name inserted in key scenes, it’s about making those scenes happen. Content gets unlocked if you complete a challenge, such as finding a location (a beacon at that location opens previously invisible sections), or sending messages to certain characters in the book. As the narrator puts it, “the reader co-develops the story, and gains access to secret events, character back stories and new chapters.” Hyperlinks add detail and texture (much like WIRED’s tablet versions, seriously cool), and, quoting again from the narrator, “a non-linear narrative emerges, allowing the readers to immerse themselves in the story from multiple angles.” It does sound a bit video game-ish (see The Stanley Parable), but that doesn’t mean that it’s not art. An interactive book shifts the idea of reading from absorption to creation, and creates a new type of mental experience. The book no longer has boundaries, and we don’t know where the story will take us. Our expectations shift, and our objectives. And, you guessed it, we no longer see the book as just a case for its content.

the future of books and reading

But are these ideas “The Future of the Book”, as IDEO’s title suggests? Maybe. Probably. But by no means exclusively. The future of the book is a diverse spectrum of formats. “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan (published in 2010, the same year of the IDEO video, coincidentally) includes a short story told in PowerPoint. Poetry is appearing on Twitter. Comic books can have motion effects. And who knows what’s around the corner? TeamLabs, a Madrid-based “learning laboratory”, and Bubok, Europe’s largest independent self-publishing web, are hosting a “bookathon” in Madrid next week called “Reinventing Digital Reading”, a day-long brainstorming session to dissect and reconstruct what a book is supposed to be. Serious brainpower coming up with new ways to read? Sounds interesting.

As Nicholas Carr points out in “Stop What You’re Doing and Read This”, reading is beneficial and enjoyable precisely because we have no input, we are not “called upon” to interact, rather just to let ourselves absorb and be absorbed.

“It is only when we leave behind the incessant busyness of our lives in society that we open ourselves to literature’s transformative emotional power. That doesn’t mean that reading is anti-social. The central subject of literature is society, and when we lose ourselves in a book we often receive an education in the subtleties and vagaries of human relations. Several studies have shown that reading tends to make us more empathetic, more alert to the inner lives of others. The reader withdraws in order to connect more deeply.”

We will always cherish books that make us feel and think, as well as books that instruct and entertain. There is scope for book to evolve, and for traditional and new formats to co-exist, without encroaching on each other’s territory. The book as we know it isn’t going anywhere, there are enough ardent fans in all generations and walks of life to make sure of that. But it will have to share our mindspace with other forms of absorbing information and of entertainment. We’re not seeing the destruction of the book, we’re seeing the birth of a new form of art, a hybrid reading/watching/creating experience. Welcome to the party, I say. Let’s see what you’ve got.
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If you want to see even more articles about the Future of Books, take a look at my Flipboard magazine “Books and Reading“:

books and reading





View my Flipboard Magazine.

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