There is a theory that has been making the rounds in the world of digital culture that the book is dead. It is static, bounded, inert. It fails to take on any of the affordances that recent technology offers the storyteller. There's no video in it, no audio in it. It isn't interactive. And it is long. If one applies the tl;dr (“too long; didn’t read”) put-down to blog posts more than a thousand words long, what hope is there for the 125,000 word epic novel? It is the horse-drawn carriage of media.
But what if all the things it is missing are in fact features, rather than bugs. Perhaps the book is like the Instapaper app or the Readability browser plug-in—it offers a clean, immersive interface. The book is, after all, is technology, simply a form of technology that has been worn so smooth from a half a millennium of contact with humans that it has been sanded down to a perfect invisible state. As such, it is not immune to technology, but the technology added must be highly attuned to what the book already is.
One potentially viable development is an activity masquerading as new technology lumped under the crude rubric of "social reading." There are two exemplary companies, Readmill and ellipsis (both based in Berlin) that are developing technology to leverage two powerful attributes of books: that people like to talk about books, and they like to talk to books. They like to share juicy quotes with friends, or with posterity. They like to talk back to the writer by commenting in the margins, by underlining and highlighting. These tools make is easier for people to do this with e-books, offering to e-books the conversation around books that has always existed and to make it still more visible to the world.
Finding the Path
I believe however that there is a still more powerful attribute of books that technology is now finally in a position to enable. While in the strictest sense the book is a classic instance of a bounded object, with a beginning and end and page edges, the book is also potentially endless.
You start reading Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore and follow along with Kafka Tamura as he runs away from home in search of his mother and sister. At night he waits to fall asleep, listening to Prince on his headphones: "The batteries run out in the middle of 'Little Red Corvette,' the music disappearing like it's been swallowed up by quicksand." Moved to help, you click the iTunes button and the song starts playing, damn the batteries. As it plays, you see the song is also mentioned in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, and you check that out, coming to page 321 and this excerpt:
One sequence—the O'Jays ("Back Stabbers"), Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes ("Satisfaction Guaranteed"), Madonna ("Holiday"), "The Ghetto" (which gets a cheer, as if it's my song rather than Donny Hathaway's) and "Nelson Mandela" by the Specials—has them begging for mercy.
And it has you begging, too. Another click and they're all loaded in iTunes and you start browsing deeper. NME, Guinness, LiveAid, the 80s summoned to life. The Sony Walkman, click on it and you see it's mentioned in 854 books. Bret Easton Ellis's of course, but also Steve Jobs, the Walkman’s executioner. Dive into his biography and there's Woz and Bill as well as Hawaii, where Jobs liked to bring his kids, Reed College from where he dropped out. And there's the iPad. Mentioned in erotic mega seller Fifty Shades of Grey, Models. Behaving. Badly., an account of the global financial crisis, and Nick Bilton's I Live in the Future and Here's How It Works.
Books have that quality possessed by all great design and by most great art—it is as much about what is not in there as what is in there. So rather than add stuff to it, what technology needs to do is illuminate those choices the writer has already made, the decision to set a meal at Musso & Franks, to have the detective drink Lagavulin, and then to allow the reader to immerse herself in all her passions, her love of Tuscan Florence and Florence + the Machine, of port and Puerto Rico, of wrap dresses and Christian Louboutin.
This is the future of reading and this is how it now works.
This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.