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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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Comments: 17

  1. Thank you so much for posting this. I agree 100% that we need to make crucial distinctions when we talk about books/book-like things / the things formerly known as books…

    And of course the distinctions are not just text-only vs. everything else. Adding rich media can dramatically enhance some “books” but degrade others, for precisely the description you gave: text evokes our own imagery rather than “feeding it to us”. Knowing when rich media is appropriate depends entirely on the reader/user goal. But interactivity is something entirely different from other digital enhancements. Again, we must always put the reader/user goal at the heart of this discussion. Just the navigation issue alone brings up a pile of issues. If we imagine a continuum with 100% linearity on one end and 100% random access on the other, it matters deeply whether the “book” is, for example, telling a story vs. acting as a reference. Most non-fiction books likely have elements of both and fall somewhere on that continuum. But misunderstanding where a “book” belongs on that continuum would be a massive mistake– one we’ve all seen in early attempts at interactive fiction, for example.

    Then there is the distinction of different forms of interactivity that are *not* about navigation, but about interactions with the content itself. I’m sure we’ll see plenty of gratuitous and distracting interactions just as the first digital books in the CD-ROM days did, but we’ll also see deeply useful interaction that gives the reader/user a higher resolution for whatever it is they are learning about.

    I would love to see a taxonomy of “book” types based on the new emerging forms as I think it would help us have more useful discussions. But I also think that it makes no sense to make distinctions among forms/formats/delivery without also making distinctions among the reader/user goals. I STILL keep seeing discussions that are all about the THING (“book”, business models for publishing, etc.) and almost NEVER about the whole reason the reader/user wants it in the first place (or doesn’t). In general, I would prefer we become more relentless today about what our reader/user is hoping to experience — including the results of that experience — and let THAT drive any discussion of emerging book/app/business models. Otherwise, we risk doing things because we *can*, not because we *should*.

  2. Yes but the term book refers to the vehicle that the content is been delivered on. The oxford english dictionary describe a book as “a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers”.  A book by definition is not a digital format. 

    The audiences of tomorrow will not consume their content on paper. but its purpose has not changed.  For example, in the educational pace, the purpose of the book is to convey the knowledge of the author to the reader.  our brains store information visually so i think that anything that can add more interactivity and visual effect will enhance the learning experience. 

    A printed printed book “stands still in time” thats true but is that always the best thing? The content is biased to the authors view. While things like wikipedia is not perfect it is collaborative. Updatable content can be so efficient.   

    • The key, I believe, lies in knowing to which extent we can stretch a definition. In my view, calling « book » the digital representation of « pages glued together » is an acceptable extension. Applying the same word to an interactive work, or to a wiki-like public system is too much of a stretch. Of course, these are merely personal views, and a matter for much interesting discussion.

      You are quite right in pointing out that the purpose of the book is to convey the knowledge of the author to the reader. However, I believe that definition warrants a little extra sharpening by stating how the knowledge is conveyed. Otherwise, a documentary film could also be called a book in that it, too, conveys the knowledge of its author to the viewer. This does not preclude improving the book, but this does help define how it relates to other media.

      As for adding visuals, I do not necessarily agree with you here: there is a difference between being given a visual and having to create the visual in one’s mind. I believe the latter case, which would involve transposing words into a mental picture, for example, promotes the formation of long-term memories. This is why I would argue that adding images (or other media) to books does not necessarily make them better.

      Media that can be updated is not necessarily bad. I did not wish to say that standing still in time is necessarily better than being constantly and transparently updated. However, I do believe that the static book (paper-bound or digital) is an important component of our culture, because that very permanence acts as a motivator (to authors and publishers) and as an archival safeguard.

      • Captured moments in time. A delightful phrase to digest. This makes me think about other methods of capturing a moment in time. Photographs, baseball cards (which I find a fascinating topic as people collect them as relics of the past, but as also investments of the future), printed newspapers, audio recordings. All relics of time. 

        François Joseph, I appreciate your analysis of the tension between the constantly updated and the static in time.

        • These are indeed interesting lines to reflect upon, especially in our industry: publishing and computing have both changed models over the past few years, eschewing static releases in favour of continuous evolution. There are many benefits to be gained here, of course, but I fear we may have let our enthusiasm carry us away.

  3. I, too, am so pleased to find this discussion. The topic has been on my mind lately. If the industry isn’t careful, we’ll be severing the empowering connection between the reader’s imagination and the material. Do we want readers to sit in front of a digital reader, mindlessly entranced by a media hybrid between books and movies? Perhaps something needs to exist in this space, but should the entire industry rush to create this new medium at the expense of condescension towards the simple, printed words? As if more is always necessarily better? We know it’s not.

    And perhaps there needn’t be a new name. In the music industry, recording artists still refer to their work as an “album” although everyone knows it will never be cut into vinyl. I don’t know. But I have been concerned that there seems to be a rush to add all these new apps to a digital book because we can. And to rely upon the public to determine what is best is not, in my opinion, a foundation for setting the course for the future of literature. Though stereotyping, the public is lazy. Most don’t like reading. They’d rather be entertained. It requires no thinking.

    It is the industry that must safeguard the book for future generations. Whether in digital or paper format, the written word, for many authors, is the only reliable and consistent means to create the desired emotions, like lyrics or music to a listener. Visuals are great and should be used when appropriate, but I hope there will never be a perception that a “mere book of words” is somehow less than an interactive digital experience. It is different, but not less.

    Thanks again for this great thread. I anxiously await reading a further discussion.

    • I very much like your image of « severing the connection between the reader’s imagination and the material ». This is very well said!

      I do fear that economic pressure will lead to the abusive « enhancement » of existing books. Today’s books are tied with movies, and re-printed in garish « movie tie-in » editions. Tomorrow’s books might take it further and include snippets of the movie, or its soundtrack… Works that were composed to require an effort of visualisation will be transposed onto an easier plane in an effort to broaden audiences and entice existing readers to purchased « enhanced » editions. It has worked so well for movies on DVD that I would be surprised to see the publishing industry turn its back to proven tactics!

      This is not to say, of course, that hybrids do not have a place in the market, or could not be made into powerful and interesting vehicles…

  4. Indeed! When the codex book was developing use, they didn’t call it Scroll 2.0 or eScroll. It was a book, distinct from the scroll. Were there some similarities? Yes. But the book was a different format than the scroll, thus it got its own name. 

    I’d like to learn more about the origin of the word book. 

    Etymologyonline says that “book” came from the German “Buche” which comes from “beech” as in the beech tree from which books were made. Although dictionary.com claims that it’s not connected to beech. 

    • Good point. AND there is a separate modern name for the “album” in our language: Compact Disc (CD). Though once both became household words, the language moved to an interchangeability without confusion… except for the brief transitional time period. So… yes, I think there should be a new name. Any suggestions?  (:

    • You should invent an eScroll and market it at next year’s CES. I sense branding potential, here!

  5. Thanks for starting this conversation. I’ve also been thinking about what a book is in this new eworld, and am glad to find other folks thinking about it as well. I’ve been contemplating more what constitutes a book in terms of the nature of the text, rather than the format, and your post has given me more ways to consider that. I think your idea of a book being static in time is akin to what I’ve been thinking of as ‘self-contained’ – not necessarily that the text doesn’t refer (or link) to things outside itself, but that it stands on its own, is not so glued into the ‘web’ of everything else. And doesn’t change over time – I think you’re absolutely right that we need to preserve that cultural aspect. I also think of a book as text as having a certain size of ‘canvas,’ a larger scope – it isn’t a magazine article or pamphlet, it’s not a blog post. There’s room in it to explore issues deeply, or create a whole world rather than a vignette. Seems to me the prevalence of web-based writing has made short-form writing the norm; books are where the long-form lives. And it’s something you read. Illustrations are fine, but the way we interact fundamentally with a book is to read it. And god forbid books start having flashing ads in them!

    • Thank you for the kind words, Kathy. If you are interested in the transition to digital, then, by all means, allow me to recommend the writing of my fellow TOC contributors as well. I am humbled by the consistently great questions they raise…

      The nature of the text is also a very interesting angle from which to look into the question of « going digital ». In fact, I believe we must keep both angles in mind at all times when discussing the issue, as they inform each other.

      Your comments about the web’s influence on the average length of written pieces is extremely interesting. I, too, have wondered about that, but the lack of statistics makes it difficult to tackle the issue. There is no question that the tools we use to create and distribute content have a strong influence on said content, even if many writers like to think they are above technology.

  6. So glad you are raising how the industry is pushing the limits of its definitions. The question about the book came years ago in the Random House v. Rosetta Books case. I believe it is coming up again in HarperCollins v. Open Road. More discussion to come in 2013.  

  7. amen.


  8. Given this line of redefinition, a video game could be considered a “book”. In this case, it is an interactive work of fiction.

    • Joseph, I think that is what we are discussing. I understand the posters of this thread to be saying, that is their concern. That a video game is NOT a book; that a book is a fixed statement by an author to be preserved in time intact and that it evokes the reader’s imagination in unique individual ways instead of presenting a limited number of pre-defined interactive responses. At least, that is my take on it. Personally, I feel the industry should encourage the evolution of technology in whatever direction creative minds may take us, but not at the expense of creating  condescension aimed at a “book” because it is not interactive. And of course, there will be differing degrees of interaction within the ebook spectrum, but where will a “book” end in that spectrum and some new tag begin, I have no clue. There will inevitably be new names for these morphed media vehicles and I doubt the word, “book” will even a part of any of them. Exciting times…

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