When a Book is No Longer a Book

This ain't a book.

The book of the future may look something like this:

  • Digital format available on: mobile device, tablet or computer screen
  • Non-linear presentation of content
  • Videos embedded into the text – some documentary length
  • Interactive graphics that allow users to manipulate the data
  • Photographs that can be adjusted in size and cropped in real-time
  • Hyperlinks to additional sources of information
  • Ability to share passages and quotes on Facebook and Twitter
  • Live chats with other readers

Mike Matas, founder of Push Pop Press, developed a template for what this digital book can look like for Al Gore’s new book “Our Choice.”  You can find the link to a video of his TED presentation below where he demonstrates all of the nifty features and functionality of Gore’s iPad book.

But here’s the real question.  Is this evolution of the book really a book?  Is reading a screen the same as reading the printed page?  Does the focused, linear act of book reading resemble the non-linear narratives found in screen reading with all of its links and interactive features?

Probably not.

In fact, as Nicholas Carr explored this topic in his famous Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid” (and later in his book “The Shallows”).  Carr found that reading a computer screen and reading a book are fundamentally different activities – and are recognized as such by our brains.  As Carr explains in the Atlantic:

“Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.” “We are how we read.”

Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.”

In a sense, reading is a tool used in digital browsing, but it isn’t the primary activity like it is with book reading.  Reading on the web or on a digital device are just ways to experience content – along with listening and watching.  You can read words on a video, but you aren’t truly “reading.”  You’re watching.

And when you skip around experiencing different formats and media it becomes difficult to focus solely on the reading part.  And, even worse, you can unlearn reading.  Reading is a skill – a complex cognitive one, but a skill nonetheless.  If you don’t practice it then the act of reading doesn’t become as automatic and you can lose the ability to do seamlessly.

As Wikipedia notes: “The reading process requires continuous practices, development and refinement.”

Books by their nature need to be read to be experienced.  There’s no other way to do it.  That’s not the case with these new kinds of digital “books,” which feature moving pictures, interactive widgets, verbal snippets and videos.  So they really aren’t books (in much the same way that compact discs weren’t vinyl albums or DVDs weren’t VHS tapes).

So we’re going to need a new name for these digital “books.”  How about digital narratives or digital stories?

What do you think?  Is a digital book really a book?


Jeff Bullas’ post “Is This the Future of Books?”

TED video on next-generation books

Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Wikipedia entry on reading

2 Responses to “When a Book is No Longer a Book”

  1. A book is a book except when it isn’t. I’ve just started to experience e-books on a IPad and almost all of what I have read is simply the traditional book digitized for electronic reading. I can’t say that my experience was fundamentally transformed. At least so far.

    Its quite obvious however, that the possibility to transform the experience of reading is now technologically feasible. In fact the electronic books can and will become a new (the next?) entertainment platform. They’ll be able to integrate, words, video, sound and it will transform and forever alter the reading experience.

    What I’m not sure about is whether or not this transformation is a bad thing. I’ll illustrate by paraphrasing the Maryanne Wolf quote from your post.

    “When we read in print, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret language, to make the rich mental connections that form when we listen intently and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.”

    Couldn’t someone have said the same thing just before Gutenberg?

  2. Hi Jeff:
    The printed word changed how we think and process information. It altered our brain into a specific way of thinking and experiencing information. So no I don’t think we could have said that before Gutenberg.

    The same thing is happening now – whether we like it or not. Information on the web – with its interactivity and non-linear pathways – are also altering the way we process information.

    Whether good or bad will remain to be seen. It might not be either just the way it is going to develop – no matter what.

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