Posted on April 17th, 2011
Lovely post on the future of the book from Kevin Kelly.
A book is a self-contained story, argument, or body of knowledge that takes more than an hour to read. A book is complete in the sense that it contains its own beginning, middle, and end.
In the past a book was defined as anything printed between two covers. A list of telephone numbers was called a book, even though it had no logical beginning, middle, or end. A pile of blank pages bound with a spine was called a sketchbook. It was unabashedly empty, but it did have two covers, and was thus called a book.
Today the paper pages of a book are disappearing. What is left in their place is the conceptual structure of a book — a bunch of text united by a theme into an experience that takes a while to complete.
Since the traditional shell of the book is vanishing, it’s fair to wonder whether its organization is merely a fossil. Does the intangible container of a book offer any advantages over the many other forms of text available now?
One can spend hours reading well-written stories, reports, and musing on the web and never encounter anything bookish. One gets fragments, threads, glimpses. And that is the web’s great attraction: miscellaneous pieces loosely joined.
There ARE books on the web. Lots of them. I posted one of the first full books that was in print on the web in 1994. But because you pass no border to reach these pages, bookish material tends to dissolve into a undifferentiated tangle of words. Without containment, a reader’s attention tends to flow outward, wandering from the central narrative or argument. The velocity of shifting focus creates a centrifugal force which spins readers away from the pages of the book.
A separate reading device seems to help. So far we have a tablet, pad, and handheld. The handheld device is most surprising. Experts had long held that no one would want to read a book on a tiny few-inch wide glowing screen, but they were wrong. By miles. Many people happily read books on their smart phone screens. In fact we don’t know yet how small a book-reading screen can go. There is an experimental type of reading that uses a screen only one word wide. Your eye remains stationary, fixed on one word, which replaces itself with the next word in the text, and then the one after that. So your eye reads a sequence of words “behind” one another rather than in a long line next to one another. The screen does not need to be very large.