How can we redefine the book?

Where does the "book" stop and the "application" begin?

A book may no longer be a physical object, but its ordinary definition remains straightforward as a “written composition that is intended for publication”. Traditional or digital, we feel confident in our ability to recognise a book.

We barely remember today that early electronic platforms offered fewer visual options than the printed page, and encouraged the release of text-only editions from which even the original covers had been removed. Four short years after the launch of the original Kindle, LCD screens were becoming quite popular in mainstream readers. Today, they are almost everywhere, some of them brighter and sharper than their desktop counterparts.

Better displays and faster hardware have encouraged publishers to offer increasingly interactive, engaging books. What started with colour engravings and tappable references in Winnie the Pooh quickly became an immersive, fluid, web-like experience.

At last year’s education event, Apple started pitching textbooks that were only books in name: movies and interactivity are as fundamental a part of this platform as humble words. While there is little doubt that the books Apple features are over-the-top examples, cherry-picked because of their demonstration value, books and apps have long started to merge: Apple is merely providing convenient tools to help popularise an existing and successful market.

Where does the “book” stop and the “application” begin? It has long been posited that publishers were simply improving the book by adding engrossing illustrations, intuitive navigational aids and up-to-date content.

I argue that these changes affect the very core of what constitutes a book: its ability to stand still in time, its fundamentally linear construction and, most of all, the small amount of effort that is required to unlock its full benefits through the power of visualisation. Today’s ebooks are tremendously more accessible, and leave little to the imagination. They are built to update automatically, at least in part, and they encourage readers to carve their own path through the content on offer, sometimes going as far as re-shuffling themselves based on reading patterns.

There is little resemblance between a text, packaged to stand still in time, that evokes powerful imagery, and an interactive presentation, featuring up-to-the-minute content, that actively feeds us images, sounds and questions as we experience it. Yet, today, both are developed and marketed as books.

I believe we have stretched the book beyond the usefulness of the word. While I am not in the least arguing against new books, we are doing a disservice to both old and new by grouping them under the same name. They belong to different contexts, challenge readers in different ways, and offer mutually exclusive benefits.

In our enthusiasm to create a new book, we have created something else entirely. This new device is exciting and may start a revolution in how we learn, share and teach. But it is not yesterday’s book. Our first step in developing its full potential ought to be giving it a name of its own.

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