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Future of books

Most of my Head for the Edge columns, updated and edited, can be found in my latest book. Buy it and I might be able to afford a nicer nursing home one day. Thank you.


The Future of Books
Head for the Edge, Technology Connection, April 1995

(See also, The Future of Books Revisited and Turning the Page.)

I enjoyed the recent LM_Net discussion of the impact of technology on the future of books. But I think too many of the responses gave us an “either or” scenario - we will either have books or technology.

The technology of “book” has already seen a number of transitions: from clay to wax to papyrus to vellum to cloth to paper, stored as tablets or scrolls or folios or books, bound in horn or leather or cloth or paper. Standardized spelling, paragraphs, and punctuation are all relatively new inventions in written communication - as are hyperlinks!

Let’s face it, our current paper printed books (with rare and expensive exceptions among those for children’s and art’s sake) are a pretty shoddy mess: rapidly disintegrating spines, greasy feeling paper, squinty print, shoddy color separation, subject to acid disintegration, easily damaged, quickly out of print, bulky to store , back breaking to move, moldy smelling, and visually dull. While I am as sentimental as the next person about the associative memories particular books evoke, I like to believe it is really the excitement of the story, the perspective of the author, or the lyricism of the language to which I am reacting. I don’t remember the color of many book spines as a child.

Imagine opening a padded notebook bound in calfskin. It weights little, smells good, and is available in a variety of sizes. It runs on a watch battery which needs replacing once every three years, and has a solar panel like those in calculators. On one side is a softly glowing, back-lit, glare free screen. My wife can sleep while I read in bed. I think my page’s background would be a rich ivory color. On the other side is a small keyboard, a number of buttons and network jack.

Come across an unfamiliar word? Touch it and the glossary key to the right of the screen and a brief definition pops up. Many books will come with a picture and sound glossary (like the one which came with the electronic book edition of Jurassic Park). Touch the word, see the object, character or setting.

Doodle in the margins? You bet, with a pen on the touch sensitive screen or via the keyboard on electronic sticky notes. Oh, I can search my notes as well as the text for that particularly pertinent passage. Set referenced bookmarks? Certainly.

I expect the less tradition bound will expect and use some content flexibility. Main character’s name is the same as your ex’s which spoils the mood? Do a little find/replace, and “Call me Ishmael” becomes “Call me Ralph.” (or whatever). Set the latest Stephen King to mild, scary or terrifying, or your Harold Robbins to suggestive, lurid, or Don’t-Let-Yer-Mom-Catch-You-Reading-It! Only like happy endings? Select that version?

Nothing very novel here, but for us those of who are, and always will be readers, a digital future has exciting possibilities! Send me your ideas about what features your e-book should have. I’ll add them to v2.0.

Doug: Your delightful description of a personal e-book brightened up my Friday night!! I laughed out loud and thoroughly enjoyed every word. I would regale you with a detailed description of my ideal e-book, but I think what you conjured up is nearly perfect. Besides, I’m too tired!! Thanks for sharing your wonderful idea.     Betsy Stine, Danvers (MA) High School 01923 <bstine@mecn.mass.edu>

I loved your book tribute. Okay if I save it and introduce it the next time the e-book discussion comes up?    Carolyn Noah, Central MA Regional Library System, Worcester To:

Doug, I loved your essay. Really thought provoking! I just had this discussion with a group of teachers on a district wide library committee. I’ll pass this on to them.     June Kahler Berry
Add waterproofing to your e-book so I can take it into the tub with me, and I’m sold!! Think it’ll happen (affordably) in our lifetime?    Kathy Lafferty

Your ideas sound great. When e-books become available, I want some!:-)     Maggie McGraw

Really enjoyed your view of the electronic book. Gave me some new ideas about this medium. Frankly, it seems like there are a lot of advantages! This information was forwarded to me through a newsgroup in Oregon.  Thanks again.    Librarian at South Albany High School

I liked your statement about the impact of technology on the future of books. I send out a monthly newsletter from my high school lmc and this year have started a little “debate” about the impact, implications etc. of technology on education and society, quoting the likes of John Updike, Yale computer scientist David Gelerntner and Annie Proulx. If you would be willing to join this debate I will quote you, with credit and thanks. Actually I have already included your statements on the “Baker’s Dozen…”

 I have learned a great deal from you over the past several months, Doug. I appreciate your willingness to share your vision with the rest of us. As the matter of fact, I quoted you from your paper last April ( I believe it was) just 2 weeks ago when I made a presentation at our state conference. I find your insights very valuable and stimulating!

Posted on Monday, July 2, 2007 at 08:12AM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | CommentsPost a Comment

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