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Friday, September 30, 2011

One Book to Rule Them All

I love books. I love the elegance and wit of fine prose. I love a sound argument and evocative exposition. I love imaginative stories and insightful analysis.

I also love the texture of books, their smell, their weight, the sound of pages turning. I love cover art, even when it's terrible or bears no relation whatsoever to the content of the book.

I love my library. Really, I love any library; I love being surrounded by stacks of books. I feel safe in a library, which serves as both a haven from the real world and a gateway to other worlds - some better, some worse, all fascinating in their own ways.

Our collective experience of books is changing. Even my mom has an e-reader now, downloading books over the internet to read on a tablet of plastic and glass. But I'm not ready for digital books yet.

Generally, I embrace change and scientific progress. But so far, e-books leave me cold. I don't like their texture, and I don't like the fact that digital rights management (DRM) software prevents you from truly owning the books you buy. E-readers require power; what do you do if you're stuck somewhere for hours and you drain your batteries?

I'm sure I'll get an e-reader eventually, but I hope the e-books of the (near) future are a little more user friendly. If I were to design an e-book, I'd make it something like this:

The FlexBook
The FlexBook will look and feel like an ordinary mass-market paperback, about 200 pages thick. The whole contraption will be made of yet-to-be-invented smart paper with all the texture of real paper but capable of displaying text, images, textures, video, etc. The smart paper will also absorb energy from the sun to keep it powered.

In the FlexBook's default state, the interior pages will appear blank, while the cover will sport touch controls for downloading books or sorting through the book's internal storage. Select a novel and your FlexBook's pages will fill with its text, while the covers and spine adorn themselves with the appropriate artwork. If your chosen book happens to be longer than 200 pages, no problem; the text will simply scroll by as you read, ensuring that the last page of your text displays on the last page of your FlexBook. No need for bookmarks; simply double-tap the page and it will change colour to indicate your place.

Of course, many readers devour several books at once. The FlexBook will always know which books are "active," listing them for you on the inside covers. Want to read a magazine, comic book or newspaper? Unfold the FlexBook to magazine, comic, broadsheet or tabloid size for an authentic reading experience.

When someone invents an e-reader of this quality and versatility, I'll buy it. Until then, I'll stick with my old-fashioned books.


Colin said...

Anti-progress luddite.

Never for Ever said...

Part One Wow, Earl, that's as close to being a luddite as I've seen you.

Ebooks are not, and cannot be electronic versions of RL books. No more than the control interface on The Next Generations' Enterprise is an electronic version of a 19th century locomotive's controls. And that's apparently what you are asking for.

In the first place a book is merely a form of a vessel. It's high time we stopped lumping all content in the same ewer just because ewers are what's been the best way to carry around wine for the last 1000 years or so. The information itself should dictate the form.

Secondly, the reading experience should be almost 100% of the enjoyability. By limiting the experience to a limited set of conditions you are basically stating that anything outside a limited norm is not longer a pleasurable activity. Try reading the Gutenburg bible with its archaic fonts, the Torah in scroll form or something written in Middle English. All of those factors are going to lessen the reading experience until you get used to them, but soon enough you will adapt and be able to access the information in pleasurable way once again.

And there are good points. My bookmarks synch between my iPad and my iPhone and I can take up wherever I left off. When I close a book halfway through the book remembers where I am and I can pick up and go whenever I get back to it. When I fall asleep at night reading the book remembers where I am and I get right back to reading the next day without wondering where I had left off. I actually look up the occasion word these days right from the ereader. Haven’t you ever wondered exactly what ‘enfilade’ meant when reading the latest military sci-fi blockbuster instead of just imaging you’ve got it right from context? Not exactly earth-shattering selling points but some of the perks an ebook brings to the table.

DRM sucks. Period. I have over 144 Sci-fi and Fantasy books on my reader and not a single one has DRM. It's something to fight tooth and nail, but if the true core market (readers like you Earl) don't fight, it’s not a battle we are going to win anytime soon.

Never for Ever said...

Part Two

Power also sucks. But my watch now runs on a battery and I’ve learned to live with the fact that the battery occasionally dies.. I'm going to guess we are pretty much screwed if and when we blow ourselves up. Until then we just practice safe power usage and have a library of old favourites around to keep us going in a pinch... sort of like candles. I’m not saying I like relying on my own sense of orgaization, but having two ereaders available has ensured I am never without a book to lull myself to sleep.

And what is up with covers, the total lack of back cover copy and the stupid online bookstores themselves. Everything I see proves to me that the industry is trying to hold on to everything about the pre-ebook world regardless of its suitability to a new format and reader (consumer) experience. I lose books in my eReader all the time because I am such a visual person. I actually have to open the ebook and skim a paragraph or two to remind me which book in a series it is. It s freaking idiotic, that's what it is.

And buying ebooks is painful and I really don’t see the booksellers getting it. Nothing so far has come close to replacing a nice hour or two in the stacks. That’s where the publishers need to be concentrating their efforts. It’s enough to make me want to get back into the book biz, just to give the old guard a real hard shake.

But, as I said, we can change all that. And by we, I again mean you and your ilk. It’s a cultural industry with an emphasis on industry and the publishers will go where the money is. That doesn't mean you can halt the changes, but it should mean we can participate in inventing something that will satisfy our needs.

Books aren't going to die. Not all knowledge is useful in an e-format. One of my pet peeves is that software manuals have gone almost exclusively to an electronic format and they suck big time at teaching anything to any one. Until they fix the paradigm I will always go back to the book as the best way to learn and reference features on new software. All information has a format, its just that the book is no longer the ultimate format for all information.

All this to say that I have real hope that the electronic format will be transformative if we embrace it and will be nothing but a long painful and fruitless struggle if we try and oppose it. Around a 1000 years ago the cry was raised “long-live the book and our thanks to the scroll for the all the memories”. I think its time for a new cry… we just need to figure out what it is.

emily said...

Just read this article today! Timely regarding your post.

"The Jeff Machine" said...

I believe there's colonial charm in the way much of our i-Candy will be shipped to India or China for disassembly, to get at the precious metals we leave behind when the devices become old or obsolete, or in the case of certain Apple products, when the non-user-replaceable battery wears out in a few months' time.

Did I mention that these recycling workers recieve the highest standard of environmental protection from caustic and poisonous chemicals as they take apart our thrown away stuff? I shouldn't because they don't. China and India particularly do not subscribe to worker environemntal safety standards that we enjoy in North America. The labourers would be lucky if they get a pair of gloves.

Nobody has to get poisoned recycling a paperback book. The worst you'd get is a nasty paper cut (although I know of people who contracted sepsis from paper cuts, so even then we have to be careful).

The value of the book is that it is a robust and functional design that has stood the test of time. Lose your place often? Find a bookmark. Or spend almost up to a minute in some cases looking up where you left off. In drastic cases I've heard of people, daredevils really, who shun bookmarks but then accidentally end up re-reading entire passages by mistake. Shocking! Scandalous!

The longevity of the physical book cannot be extended e-readers. There simply will not be the same technology twenty years from now that there is now. Millions of these devices will have been used and discarded by the time we have flying cars and Nexus Sixes running around. Even Earl's Flipbook concept might have it's day, but would it last even a hundred years? Fifty? Twenty? Ten? Would it outlast an i-Pad? A Newton? An Atari Portfolio? A Casio Pocket Viewer? A Dell Axim? An E-TEN? A GMate Yopy? A Handspring? An iPAQ? An HP Jornada? A LifeDrive? An NEC MobilePro? An Osaris? A Palm PDA? A Philips Nino? A Psion? A PMA-5? Sharp's Wizard or Saurus? Sony's CLIÉ or Magic Link? A Tapwave Zodiac? A Toshiba e310?

Choose what you want to use, but at least be aware of the consequences of your choices.

Earl J. Woods said...

Hey guys,

Thanks very much for the excellent, in-depth commentary from both sides of the issue. I didn't expect a lunch hour's curmudgeonly griping to stir such passionate debate, but you've given me a whole bunch of new points to consider.