Physics and the Future of Books
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It’s hard to see the future of the book when our current model is centuries old. To look ahead, we have to look within—at the materials and forms now at our disposal. A review of some key digital media properties suggests how we might design books for the kinds of readers we are all becoming.
Imagine if we had Zoom In and Out controls for our books. You’d swoop from a birds’ eye view to mid–altitude summary to up–close details. In their current, fixed shape, of course, we can’t; books generally require 15 to 20 hours of our time. What options exist for those of us who are genuinely interested in an author’s work, but who can’t spare two or three days?
Books do have proxies that summarize their contents—back cover copy, the table of contents, the conclusion. But these are irregularly positioned on the spectrum from “in brief” to “unabridged.” They offer incomplete or unreliable exposure to the underlying entity they represent. Worse, they operate without the zoomable fluidity we expect from digital media and its viewing mechanisms. Think: Google Maps’ altitude slider and a touchscreen’s pinchable photos.
To satisfy today’s readers a book needs to serve up different–sized, contiguous versions of itself.
VELOCITY & DEPTH
If scale is about adjusting the size of the reading object, velocity describes our consumption speed. In most cases this means increasing the rate at which we read—an understandable desire in an age of information excess. How we accomplish this requires thinking about more than just different serving sizes (blurb, summary, sections). Instead we need to think about the reader’s mindset—the different states in which she operates while reviewing choices, and then again when committing to a selection.
A trio of verbs describes both mood and action:
- Skim: Help me pick. I am in info triage mode, ready for newsfeed–style scanning of concisely (and colorfully) labeled options.
- Grok: Give me the gist. What I want is a comprehension–friendly summary of a topic.
- Master: Gimme all you got. Prolonged reading and immersion are a–go!
Accommodating these goals requires dynamically changing a document’s state—exposing progressively larger portions of an information architecture appropriately structured:
A new presentation interface is called for; traditional pagination is poorly suited for this system’s fast–forward progress and quick state changes. A Twitter–style scroll is one option:
A stack of reading cards is another:
That ebooks are searchable often gets touted as a key advantage over print. But the keywords we dispatch into search ovals are remarkably dumb retrieval agents. They pinpoint matches, but beyond that are helpless against more nuanced requests, such as:
- Round up the passages in which we come to know a character’s personality
- Extract a timeline of key events
- Show me the scenes in which two people meaningfully interact
- I need a five–minute version of this book
- Show me the author’s three favorite passages
- Surprise me
A fully digital book is much more than a bitmapped replica of its print counterpart. It is imbued with an intelligence that may never be human, but in its advanced, machined state is impressive and satisfying in its own right. First steps here require markup and content structuring—undertakings that publishers and authors may view as daunting, but which are of the same order of complexity and burden as existing “extras” like the index.
STORE, ORGANIZE, RETRIEVE
The most painful irony for me about today’s books is how ill–equipped they are to help me master the topics I’m interested in. Surrounded by these rich troves of guidance I skitter around between titles, randomly choosing what to read next, like so many links tapped in a Twitter feed. What I long for are well–planned and sustained reading journeys—on China, on climate change, on relativity. Topic quests that chip away at what I don’t know. Campaigns to refresh and challenge what I think I understand.
The book, of course, is not entirely at fault. It is also me and my wandering attention. What I need is something that no single book can provide. I need what I think of as a “Reading Dashboard”—a knowledge–capturing apparatus, purpose–built for organization and retrieval.
My Kindle home screen is a primitive start, but not the solution. So–called personal information managers like Evernote and DevonThink come closer. But cordoned off as they are from our books’ meaty innards they require more work to populate than I have time available. What I envision are books that possess the ability to break apart and travel into this imagined software repository, where I can commingle my thoughts with an author’s considered intelligence. Not me as sideline highlighter and note–taker, but me with full rights of expression and presence. What I understand and can recapitulate about relativity is every bit as valuable—to me—as Einstein’s own findings.
THE DIGITAL BOOK’S FUTURE
Books that are scalable and respond to intelligent queries.
Books that let me adjust my consumption velocity, and accommodate my desire to track what I know.
These are the books I want.
These attributes, together, represent a meaningful expression of what I see as the book’s future. Surely something like this will emerge as a natural fulfillment of the digital medium we are learning to compose with. Just as clearly these ideas are aspirational—some might call them wishful thinking. But it is my future of the book—the one I will keep working on, and pining for, till the thing I have imagined gets made.
Peter Meyers (@petermeyers) is a writer and editorial product designer. His latest book is Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience.