Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading (9 page)

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
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Bookmark: Love Letters Preserved between Pages

Feeling nostalgic for print books today, I opened some of mine at random and looked through them. Here’s a catalog of interesting bits of stuff I found trapped between the pages:

A W-2 tax and wage statement from my first job.

A note from my best friend, torn from a wall calendar dated June 26, 1993, with a note saying, “Jason, come visit!”

Calvin and Hobbes
cartoon my dad mailed me when I was in college.

Petals from a pear tree I once had outside my apartment in Ohio.

A record for a Dungeons & Dragons character I once had in junior high (magician, level ten).

A fax I received on the day my grandfather died.

Three Chinese coins my mother once gave me.

A love letter from a former girlfriend.

A butterfly wing, either carefully preserved or accidentally torn.

The catalog could go on and on. Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I’m a collector of useless and sentimental things. My wallet bulges not with cash but with receipts and ticket stubs that I’m too sentimental to toss aside. The result is that my wallet grows larger every month and needs to be held together by too many rubber bands. It won’t even fit into my pocket anymore, which kind of defeats the purpose.

I have a habit of stuffing receipts and letters into anything I can find, books not excepted. I leave these trinket collections and stashes of papers behind as bits of myself from former eras. I stuff them into desk drawers and cardboard boxes and wallets and, best of all, books, because there are so many of them in my house. It’s as if I’m able to animate the books with my personality, somehow. Maybe I’m a bit pathological in this sense, compared to most people. But books are like waystations in my life, not just in terms of what they taught me, but what they in turn recollect of me, what bits of myself they hold between their pages. There’s a capsule history of my life preserved between the pages of my books.

It’s a surprising find, and I’d venture to say that everyone with enough books has something similar pressed between the pages of their own books. Such capsule histories comprised of love letters and faded faxes can only be contained by our print books and not by digital ones. Books that I’ve stuffed with flyers and pamphlets and notes I’ve jotted on postcards serve as time capsules. They’re part of my identity. My identity is not—and hopefully never will be—emotionally aligned with a clean, sleek, soulless plastic device.

In this sense, ebooks are useless.

But now that I’m moving away from print books and toward ebooks, perhaps this is a blessing in disguise. I can reassess whether I even need to store my personal trinkets, my bits of stuff. Maybe it would be best if I simply bought a digital scanner and scanned them. That way, they could coexist with my ebooks on my hard drive and follow me forever, a digital shrine to three Chinese coins and a torn butterfly wing.

But I suspect that something will get lost in translation if these trinkets move from physical to digital. We’ll lose the feeling of unexpected discovery. We’ll also lose context. Why, for example, was a certain love letter placed inside a specific book? We’ll lose something of the ineffable mystery of our lives. But what do you think? I’d like to hear what you have found preserved between the pages of your family’s books.


Why Books (and Ebooks) Can Never Be Replaced

Why do we read? Besides the nagging voice of my second-grade teacher in my ears, what compels me to read?

In its way, reading is highly ambiguous. What, for example, is Joseph Conrad’s
“about”? There are many possible interpretations, but none are definitive. Reading is open-ended, plural, meandering, and imprecise, which can be maddening. So what’s the allure of reading?

In part there’s the status. Reading is a way to emulate the elite of former ages. The elite members of society—not the commoners—were the readers, and they were the ones with power. Not surprisingly, people wanted to emulate them. And in spite of its inherent ambiguity, reading still has an allure because it works. Reading is still the preeminent mode of consuming information in our culture. It’s time-efficient and much faster than conversation. Reading is often solitary and free of distraction—unlike talking or watching a TV show, where a soundtrack and audio effects intentionally manipulate your mood and break any concentration you may have had.

That said, the allure of reading is waning. Books are less of a status symbol now than ever before. Our gadgets themselves are the new status symbols, not what we can do with them. And we seem, as a culture, to crave multifunctional devices. Tablets that surf the web and play games. Smartphones that speak back to you sassily.

If our gadgets can be used for reading ebooks, it’s often as an afterthought. You don’t see people getting pulled over by the police for reading ebooks on their smartphones. They get caught for text messaging. (Although if I were a state trooper, I think I’d let someone go with a simple warning if I caught him reading a good book while driving.) I think this rise in gadget lust and waning interest in reading presages a decline in basic book literacy.

You might argue that, at the very least, our gadgets are helping us use the internet more successfully. But a 2011 study conducted by the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries Project showed that recent internet-savvy college students performed poorly at basic research skills using Google or other search engines. Reading and book literacy may be necessary prerequisites for learning how to refine information and communicate effectively.

There are convoluted semiotic theories of communication that I won’t delve into here, but most such theories agree that information is always encoded, transmitted, and deciphered. For example, an author has an idea that he encodes in English with suitable words. The idea is then printed, and then a reader reads the sentences and tries to decode the meaning of the idea. Errors can be introduced at each step in the process, such as the author encoding the sentence with the wrong word (a misspelling or incorrect usage), or the publisher printing the sentence incorrectly, or perhaps the reader not knowing a given word and therefore being unable to decode the sentence or incorrectly interpreting its overall meaning.

For books, it takes longer to encode an idea than to decode it; in other words, it takes longer to write a sentence than it does to read it. These two sentences, for example, were started at a Chinese restaurant in Albuquerque, improved on while driving to a chile pepper festival near the Mexican border, reassembled a week later during a terrible rainstorm, and edited four months later on an airplane.

Writing is complex, even though the basic units of writing are comparatively simple. We have twenty-six letters, twice as many when you factor in lower and upper cases, plus a handful of common punctuation symbols. That’s about eighty different symbols, which doesn’t seem like a lot to work with. But consider DNA. Although it only has four basic nucleotides, or four symbols, these encode for all life on this planet, in all its diversity. So writing is complex. With all this complexity, there’s a lot of room for error in between the encoding and decoding of this information.

So why do we use books?

Books are good for more than being a barrier against the outside world when you need anonymity and good for more than propping up the occasional table or chair. Books strike a happy balance between price, cost to produce, and efficiency of communication. Pound for pound, few information sources are cheaper than a book. Sources that are cheaper (such as pamphlets) tend not to last as long as a book, so when you amortize the cost of production over time, a book is the clear winner. And because so many books are produced in one print run, the costs tend to be low.

There are more expensive forms of information transmission, but few of us can afford a polymathic private tutor like Pangloss from
to follow us around. Besides, books offer an improvement on a private tutor because you can read and learn at your own pace, as fast or as slow as you please. Even in a college environment with perhaps twenty students to one teacher, you still can’t push a fast-forward button on the teacher to skip the slow parts of a lecture, unless it’s a prerecorded lesson. Even then, no visual or audio cues indicate when you get to an interesting part. But you can easily skim through a book to get to the cool parts.

Books are priceless. Without them, we’re little more than monkeys who have learned to wear expensive wristwatches and designer sunglasses. We’ve been elevated into an order above all other animals by books, by language, and by story. Books can give us unattainable orients to yearn for. Books can inspire us toward greatness. Books can give us moral guidance or connect with us in ways that even our friends and families can’t. I’m sure you have a few prized books that are almost part of you, part of your identity, books that are worth a tremendous amount to you even though they may be scuffed up and battered or dog-eared and underlined.

Books are essential. And it’s important that they don’t go away.

But surely we can improve on books, now that we’re moving into the digital age. If we could redesign reading, what would it look like?

Books serve many purposes. Sometimes we read for entertainment, and sometimes we read to learn. Sometimes we read for distraction or inspiration or edification or to fight the sheer boredom of a long plane trip. But if I had to distill books down to one core cultural purpose, it would be to teach. Books hold the repository of human knowledge, and then some. Even an innocent romance or mystery encodes social mores, cultural stereotypes, details about a time and a place, and an author’s insights into the world. The primary cultural function of a book is to teach, and other functions are simply stylized elaborations and innovations on this core function.

So if books, at their core, are about teaching and learning, experiencing and enjoying, then the best redesign of a book would leverage experience itself. Consider, for example, the experience of walking with your dad through the forest as a kid, as he points out all the trees and their names. As you taste some of the cranberries and blueberries growing on the shrubs, he tells you how they grow and what they’re used for. You’re likely to learn and remember more from a genuine experience like this than you would from a dry, uninviting text.

Perhaps linear line-by-line reading as we know it will fade to a quaint pastime like butter churning or horseback riding once holographic learning is developed—I’m thinking of a
-ian innovation like the Holodeck.

In that TV show, the Holodeck was a space the size of a large theater populated by holograms—projections of people, places, and objects—with which crew members could interact. If books could be translated into Holodeck-style experiences, you would not read a book by linearly regarding one row of text after another, line by line, page by page, but by directly experiencing it.

Instead of reading about the characters in a romance novel, you would be one of them and interact with the others. The novel would be staged and scripted, and you would be a character in the script wearing period-style clothing. Imagine how history lessons, not to mention global ethics, would be revitalized if you had to participate in a simulation of World War II during school instead of reading about it as a series of dry events and facts. Imagine how many more students might take an interest in algebra or topology if they could experience a Möbius strip by walking on its surface.

That said, Holodeck-style experiential learning isn’t on our immediate technological horizon. In the short term, the future of ebooks might look a lot like an evolved version of Apple’s own iBook product. With tables, 3D rotating images, embedded multimedia, and multiple typographic options, it certainly engages the eyes and ears. Especially on a device the size of an iPad. I think this is great, although sometimes such multimedia enhancements are distracting enough to take readers away from the main points of the text. Sort of like a PowerPoint presentation with too many bells and whistles and too much clip art.

Experiential reading may well become the next stage in reading’s redesign—for certain kinds of books, at least. I think the only time reading will still be preferred in the traditional linear line-by-line style is when it’s no longer used for teaching purposes. There are some palaces of the imagination too tenuous to build from celluloid, some stretches of the mind for which no map suffices but the reader’s own personality. Some books need to be presented in their original form, and any additional visual or auditory or virtual details would be an imposition, an interpretation. Creating an experiential, Holodeck-style simulation of a book requires one or more people to script the book, and that scripting locks the book into just one interpretation.

Indeed, we see this with movies now. There have been many remakes of classic plays like
, each subtly different, owing to each director’s interpretation. Such interpretation isn’t just stylistic or related to which actors are cast in the starring roles; sometimes whole scenes are cut. At this point, the play is no longer true to the original. The only way to understand the author’s original intent is to read it in the original line-by-line form yourself or to sample multiple directors’ takes, hoping that the author’s intent corresponds to the average interpretation of all the variants and remakes.

Strange as it sounds, it may be impossible to experience certain kinds of books in any way other than a line-by-line read. Neither Franz Kafka nor Jorge Luis Borges will yield to the virtual, because their books are too much like poetry.

You can’t adequately experience James Joyce’s
as a movie or a video game. You have to be bludgeoned with it as a book, overwhelmed with the magnificent, inchoate details of Dublin. Paradoxically, the only way to read this book, which takes place in the span of one day, is to read it over a lifetime.

There’s no computer graphics studio in Hollywood that can create an ancient monster from an H. P. Lovecraft story, because the monster only lives inside the reader’s imagination. To show the face of the lurking horror, the unspeakable dread, would be to tell a different story, and not the one which Lovecraft intended.

Of course, this is just as true for ebooks as for traditional print books. And that’s why reading will never be replaced, although it certainly will change.

» » »

We can’t possibly know with any accuracy what the future of reading will be like. But that won’t stop me from guessing. I think ebooks will one day evolve into something like a movie and a video game combined with the authoritative intent of an astute storyteller. I can suggest that it will be wrought and wired so deeply in our brains that the emotions we perceive from the author will be genuine as far as we’re concerned.

We’ll feel genuine terror or elation, and we’ll be transported into another state entirely, half crafted and half real, as any good story should be. After all, the best stories are half true, half how they should have been, and half cloud. I know that doesn’t add up, and that’s as it should be. The part in the clouds is where you find yourself imagining and wondering what-if thoughts. It’s where your temporal and parietal lobes measure out ideas and your brain’s limbic system responds with affect and emotion.

The books we read now are laboriously constructed. Their authors are sensitive to rhythm and rhyme, sonance and sibilance, rising and falling action, and intricate symbolism that sometimes takes a team of scholars to decode. We read these books because we understand the codes and conventions. It’s like an author carefully wraps something up for us, a present that we subsequently unwrap, and the act of unwrapping is reading itself. We’re taught from an early age what the codes are and how to decode them.

Over time, I think a different form of book will eventually emerge, one that’s more rooted in the mind itself. Just as authors type or dictate content now, I think the future might hold some sort of high-speed plug that goes into an author’s head, some way of taking an author’s imagination and converting it directly into a digital format. The same high-speed cables will connect you to the author’s original experience. The act of encoding and decoding will become relegated to artistic flourishes, and we’ll be able to participate in the more immediate action of the author’s own mind and flights of fancy.

The firsthand experience of life itself will come through unmediated by the encoding and decoding that we currently use in books. Words are often the worst culprits in this. They are ornaments that often get in the way of the book. Like shifting, ambivalent snakes, words are capable of so much suggestion and meaning, but they squirm when you try to pin them down.

I anticipate instead that we will be connected mind-to-mind to the lived experiences of an author—such as the experience of nervous anticipation the next time Jeff Bezos stands on a stage to announce a new Kindle, or the terrifying experience of Felix Baumgartner jumping from a balloon in the stratosphere.

Whether they’re more inky or phosphorescent in nature, books will follow the human spirit as it endeavors into the unknown. And though books have been relegated behind video games and movies and TV shows for their share of leisure time in America—the average person spends two hours watching TV every day, which is twenty times more than an average person reads—the art of reading will continue, although its form will surely change. Books are being replaced by ebooks, and in turn, ebooks will be replaced by another seemingly science-fictional innovation, but reading in some form is here to stay.

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
11.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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