François Joseph de Kermadec

François Joseph is a professional word-wrestler, moonlighting as a columnist. When he is not crafting new tales for his clients, he likes to spend quality time in those of others. He has been known to loiter in museums, proselytise unlikely authors, and sing along at the Opera.

We need incognito book purchasing

There are valid reasons for wishing to purchase a book without being tracked

In the physical realm, purchasing a book without revealing one’s identity involves little effort beyond proceeding to a store one does not usually patronise and paying in cash. Unless one is seeking illegal volumes, which are unlikely to be obtained at neighbourhood booksellers’ anyway, these obvious techniques are nearly guaranteed to throw friends, banks, and marketers off the scent.

Alas, there is no such thing as an incognito shopping trip in the digital world. Not only are our transactions permanently etched into our credit card records, they are carefully logged and scrutinised by the stores themselves. Any purchase on Amazon, to name but one, forever hounds us in the form of recommendations, obvious or otherwise. Emails and pages are subtly optimised to highlight content related to our past acquisitions, whether in style, length, or subject matter. While we may be given opportunities to decline outright suggestions, there stops our control of the process — and we must provide a reason for declining, which further enriches our personal file.

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Comments: 7 |

Digital publishing and the loss of intimacy

The cognitive overhead involved in reading a book has increased tremendously

Reading used to be an intimate experience. Even Amazon, the pioneer in digital publishing, branded its Kindle with a child reading alone under a tree. Books were specially designed to disappear into the background as much as possible, helped by a laundry list of conventions as to language, punctuation, format, and structure, thus allowing readers to direct all their attention and cognitive powers to the text at hand.

The first digital platforms made a decent job of emulating the traditional experience. Certainly, the overhead of managing an Amazon account is something readers could do without, but allowances had to be made. Black text on a white screen was still the reference, and great pains were taken to ease users into this new experience: options were few, and the physicality of the book was heavily reflected in the shape and size of the device.

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Comments: 9 |

The book as a standard of quality

It's time for the industry to agree on maintaining certain standards

Publishers have long commandeered respect for the quality of their work. Traditional processes may be cumbersome, reliant as they are on an infinity of minute, specialised steps, but they have helped maintain consistently high standards, at ever-lower prices. Authors may sometimes hold fantastic positions, but publishers have largely upheld their part of the bargain: giving them a clear, intelligible voice.

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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.

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Comments: 17 |

Losing the book as a symbol

Publishing needs to build new symbols for the digital age

Transitioning the publishing industry to digital technologies involves lifting the words out of printed pages, and pouring them into the amorphous containers we call ebooks. Books are no longer the tangible, brick-shaped presence they were: they must, instead, be stretched and poured into and onto any device fit for reading, from the laptop to the Kindle to the phone.

In fact, “the book” no longer designates the physical expression of the text, but the text itself, a self-contained bundle of information, whose structure and boundaries have been jointly defined by the author and the publisher. Picking up a book where you left it no longer involves picking up the same object, but rather the same text on whatever device happens to be at hand.

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Comments: 11 |

Ebooks and the future of research

Society cannot afford to lose its distributed knowledge backup system

Knowledge cannot progress unless it is aware of its past: a knowledge-seeker must reference the works of previous generations. Literary scholars return to manuscripts, musicians to partitions, artists to museums…

The continued availability of reference works underpins our entire research system. It has become so ingrained in our methods that it barely registers on our list of values to uphold. Yet, that very availability has dissolved into a mirage, to surprisingly little protest.

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