About the book again: I hardly ever keep books around unless I really plan to read or reread them, and I admit I don’t entirely understand the collector mentality. Books seem to go through some transformation after setting in one place for more than a few months, from circulated media to art installation — the aesthetic statement made by the oak bookcase in the living room, the office stacked with books on every flat surface.

This seems bound to become more apparent as books become less things to be paged through and more things to be downloaded. Kids of the future will look at images from the previous centuries and wonder why books were ever collected in the first place. Walls stacked with books will seem to them the way walls covered in animal hides might seem to us now. They will be amused by the phrase “dust jacket.” 

Normally I keep my books in the kitchen pantry, and I admit they only fit there because I’ve donated most of them to the Urbana Free Library. The landlord’s recent effort to control the building’s cockroach population forced me to move what books I have to the living room, where as of this morning they are still piled in heaps on the floor. When I want something, I have to shuffle around one of the piles until I spot some familiar bit of color.

There are many advantages to disappearing the book into The Cloud, but I suspect the really important ones have not yet materialized. We seem still to be at the stage of development in which ebooks simulate physical books — our expectations are based on how closely ebooks reproduce the reading experience we know and love.

When the full weight of computer intelligence is brought to bear on the issue, though, we might predict that the whole reading experience will transform into something more. Here’s my wants list:

  1. I want the ebook to help me keep track of things — names, dates, titles. I want it to be ready to connect every important reference to prior references so that, when I run across something unfamiliar, it will remind me where I saw it first.
  2. I want the author to be ready to explain things to me as I read — just a simple pop-up window in which I might get a further explanation about characters, theories, inspirations, whatever. If the author’s not up for it, then James Earl Jones.
  3. I want ebooks to update themselves in useful and surprising ways — to add commentary from critics, say, or audio from the author’s book tour, or to add new studies and more data to existing studies. I want to return to a favorite ebook to find that it has grown to twice its original size.
  4. I want the ebook to be a virtual reading coach. There exists a mountain of research data on reading performance, and I want it turned into applications that make me a better reader with each reading experience. I want the ebook to make me and everyone I know virtuoso readers.
  5. I want eye-tracking software to be included with the ebook reader so that it knows when I’m losing my sense of attention, when I don’t quite understand something, and when I’ve likely skipped past an important detail. I want the ebook to create phenomenal reading compression for me and everyone I know.
  6. I want the ebook to facilitate nonlocal conversational partnerships with people reading the same thing at the same time as me. I want the ebook to construct ad hoc wireless networks that function as classrooms and salons for such reading partnerships. I want the ebook to have all sorts of cool plug-ins that will enhance these ebook-based virtual environments.
  7. I want the ebook to be the city I live in while I’m reading it.
  8. I want the ebook to have extrasensory perception on my behalf. I want the ebook to use my reading choices and habits, and my learning style and interests, to suggest the next ebook I might like, the optimal location for reading it, and the best strategies for integrating what I learn.
  9. I want the ebook to do for authorship what it will do for readership. I want the ebook to make ebook authorship part of our everyday lives. Here’s an ebook about today’s world news. Here’s an ebook about our trip to Santa Fe.
  10. I want the ebook to remake the concept of a book so thoroughly that not only does it transcend and absorb all other media but also becomes the standard by which we describe our relationship with reality.

Okay, so we’re not there yet, but it’s easy to believe that we will be there eventually, even inevitably. Everything suggested here exists in some form already, if perhaps a form that is undeveloped or expensive. Eventually we will carry around this version of the book in the same backpack or coat pocket that we carry our analog books around in now. And in the future beyond that future, kids will think how weird it was that we once carried an item around with us in order to read.

What would you like the ebook to do?

(p.s. Not long ago, I visited a friend’s house that was packed with books — not just piles in the living room but also in the garage, the hallway, the bedrooms, the kitchen — some 50 years of collecting on display. Here was the book collector’s element — the life lived inside a homemade library, the library as landscape with its own sense of natural order, as though the whole thing was an extension of the outdoors, and we were standing inside and outside all at once. As an artistic statement, it could have been a comment about the wilderness of the mind. But that didn’t occur to me at the time. At the time, we talked about civil rights and drank lemonade.)

(Image: Library of knowledge by ShironekoEuro, a Creative Commons Attribution No Derivative Works (2.0) image from Flickr)

Link to bookshelf walls.

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