Yesterday I had a pair of separate incidents that jumbled together in my head and caused me great distress. Or perhaps it was getting a crown fitted in my mouth. Whatever the cause of the distress, the end result was me pondering the question/problem/future of books in the digital age.
It started as I was collecting some thoughts for a review of Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman for the blog Guys Lit Wire. One of the a-ha moments of the book I remembered from my original reading many moons ago was how technology took a huge leap at the end of the 19th century that fundamentally changed how we communicate.
Essentially, one day we were taking time to carefully craft letters by hand, taking them to the post office, having them transported by train, and then hand delivered to our intendeds – a process that, depending on your service area and how quickly you wrote, moved at the speed of trains, roughly 35 mph. So three to five days figure for a letter. Then this Morse guy figures out a way to harness electricity and develops a coded language that would allow you to send messages down a wire within minutes to that same recipient.
Think about how monumental a jump that was, to go from a three-day letter to a three-minute telegram.
Letters, of course, persisted through the dawning of the telephone. Electricity became not only lights but radios and television. Satellites made it possible for us to witness live events half way around the world with only a three-second delay. When we talk about a shrinking world, this is what we’re talking about, closing the time-space gap between our abilities to send information to other people on the planet.
So what’s with books?
Here we have a technology that’s been with us for hundreds or thousands of years (depending on how you want to define books) that has, for the last several hundred years, remained relatively unchanged. 20th century technology allowed us to shorten the time it takes to print, bind, and transport books but in the end you still had an end product that was both easily recognizable if it could be sent back in time 350 years and in a format that required no introduction.
Here’s were the second part of my ponderable entered.
I recently received as a gift a new iPad. I hadn’t been looking for or expecting it, but I like playing with new toys like many people. One of the things I wanted to check out was how it worked as an ereader, but I wasn’t so dedicated to the idea as to actually purchase a book for the test run. My thinking was that I didn’t want to come away with a sour impression of a book based on my interaction with its format. I had originally considered downloading a classic from public domain site like Project Guttenberg but I couldn’t settle on anything. Then I remembered that my local library does digital lending and that to me seemed like a better test. I eventually found a title I wanted to check out, something I knew nothing about and had no expectations of, and downloaded it to my tablet for reading.
Because first I had to download an app that supported an Adobe reader format. Then I had to enter the library’s digital database to see what was available for download. Then I had to save it to my cart. Then I had to download it to my tablet. Then once on the tablet I had a brief wait while it loaded. And once there I was able to finally have the ebook experience.
In time, I imagine the process of finding and up- and downloading books will become second-hand to me, but what caught me off guard was how my expectations of technology made me so impatient with the process in so short a period of time. The book experience itself is relatively pleasant so far, it’s the acquisition that seems like a hitch to me. So if I wanted to purchase this book in a digital format – say I wanted to spend more time than the limited 14 day download period or it was a reference book I wanted to be able to refer to – I would then have to locate the book for sale in an edition that worked with my device, or software, and go through the entire download process again. If I had made notes for myself would the pagenation be identical that I could relocate the passages on my new copy for insertion into the text? And what if it were a nonfiction title and the information within the book had changed recently (top nuclear accidents, number of planets in the solar system)? If all else but a few new paragraphs of information had changed, would it make sense in this digital age that I would have to pay for and download and entirely new edition of the book?
And so it was that while I previously never had an qualms about out-of-date texts and transferring notes between editions I suddenly find myself feeling like the current situation with digital publishing is off on the wrong foot. The technology should enhance the experience, somehow transcend the problems of its analog chains. Where it was expensive to print new editions of books and get that information out to readers the flash if digital media should make upgrades and updates a built-in feature. To read a book from a digital lending library it shouldn’t take third and fourth party interfaces to make it accessible.
Basically, ebooks shouldn’t try to be books, they should be apps.
Let’s not call them books or apps at all, let’s give them a new name: Sheaves ©, and in the singular, a Sheaf ©. Each sheaf should strive for something more than simply words on a digital page like a book. The sheaf is a connection between a reader and a writer. Sheaves can have whatever features a reader might want; a quarterly update from the author about future titles; hyperlinks within the text to web pages that provide background or supplemental materials to enhance the reading experience; what if a sheaf could include a soundtrack, an ambient background track that synced up with specific chapters or was comprised of a (copyright cleared, obviously) playlist that was assembled by the author?
Because, you see, the genie is out of the bottle. Books are now like another developing technology of the early 20th century, movies. Originally there was a novelty phase where the idea of seeing photos coming to life was enough to satisfy. Then movie evolved to include overly dramatic pantomime to compensate for the lack of sound. Sound came along and brought theatrical dialog. Color came and dialog became more natural. What began as an old alignment of photography and serial printmaking evolved into a storytelling medium that took technology and ran with it. They weren’t content to present lantern slide shows with musical or narrative accompaniment, and books shouldn’t rely simply on the typographical representation of another era to carry the weight.
There will always be books – bound sheets of paper that contain stories and images to fire the imagination – just as we still have theatre in the age of instant-watch Hollywood movies on our LCD screen, and musicians playing and singing acoustically in a world of digital production, just as there are artists who still use canvas and paint where others have used machines and technology to create representational images. I just think that which we call a book is a square peg currently being fitted into a round technological hole.