Digital Reading: Getting Beyond the Book Fetish

Anne KostickBy Anne Kostick, Partner, Foxpath IND

One of my favorite YouTube videos is “Medieval Helpdesk,” a Norwegian bit of humor from around 2008. For those who may have missed it, the joke concerns a monk in need of assistance operating that newfangled invention, the book.

Not only is the monk stymied about how to open the book or continue the text after the page ends, he worries that if he changes the “view” or even closes the book, the contents will somehow disappear.  Like a modern customer, though, he quickly sees (and complains) that it takes longer to “turn the page” than just to unroll a scroll.  Clearly he will be uncomfortable with the new technology no matter what, until he gets used to it.

Just as we know that a book is not like a scroll or any other antiquated device for recording information, we know that digital books are not really like print books, but we’re still annoyed at the difference. We’d make digital books more like print books, if we could; we’d be more comfortable with them.

But maybe we do, after all, need a new way of looking at the book.

In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, James Gleick proposed that our nostalgia for print books is simply a case of fetishizing their physical properties; even without the original parchment, or ink and glue, the “soul” of the work—its ideas—lives on, and is what’s most important.

But it’s not just sentiment that attaches us to a form that has served us so well for so long. From a usability standpoint, the print book is still superior to the dedicated digital reader and recent upgrades in hardware and experiments in software have narrowed the gap only by a small amount.

If we could travel ahead in time, perhaps we’d see an entirely different interactive object used for that complex set of activities we call “reading.”   I’ll bet that interactive experience will be even less like a book than our current e-ink emulators. I think it’ll be some form of app.

The book-vs-app argument isn’t new, and came up in this column with the publication of Al Gore’s Our Choice from Push Pop Press a few months ago. At that time, commenters fell squarely on one side or the other: They either wanted to emulate that possibly fetishized object, or they were looking for a web-like interactive experience—and somehow, most were still unsatisfied.

We just haven’t thought far enough ahead. Our reading behavior and expectations are certainly influenced by the decade-plus of widespread computer use and screen interaction.  We’ve learned to mouse, scroll, swipe, pinch, left-click and right-click. We demand more and more of our online and onscreen experiences and we will certainly demand more of our e-reading experiences.

What’s more, our computer behavior is inevitably changing our reading behavior. How many of us read books with one hand, so to speak, and look things up on our nearby laptop computer with the other? We often call reading an “immersive” experience, but perhaps instead of preserving that experience (is it antiquated behavior?) we will remake reading to be more like all our other current experiences—say, the way I now watch a movie on TV, with one eye on the TV and another on my laptop screen as I “sofa-surf” on, checking out the actors, locations, trivia and goofs.

Ventures into interactive content organization may offer a glimpse of what we might expect in a future reading experience.  For instance, a beautiful iPad app called Planetary is a new take on a music player. Planetary doesn’t know more about your music than you do; it simply uses the data set of information you supplied to display relationships between those data points in a compelling and interactive form. Right now, Planetary is more fun than useful (it’s like having a toy to play with while listening to music) but more interesting possibilities emerge from it.

Planetary’s welcome statement says it all: “Your iPad music collection is visualized as a galaxy. Stars are artists. Planets are albums. Moons are tracks.” Click to view larger.

Books have a far richer potential data set available. First, each book has its information, including the individual title’s apparatus of contents, index, footnotes, potential marginalia and cross references, etc. Then, each author and subject is related to several other data sets including other books, reviews, influences, biographical information, and so on.

If the technology exists to display limited data sets it can’t be long before we’ll be able to see a wide array of connections, and even bring them up onscreen at will. How about a reader that displays book text in one window, with links to other windows, simultaneously openable, for dictionary look-up, biographical information, other parts of the book (such as footnotes), external reviews, and related books, note-taking, and “see also” subjects and related books. That would be not only a reading experience, but a library reading-room experience.

Another company, Thinkmap, has long been a pioneer in the area of interactive data visualization. Best known for the engine behind Visual Thesaurus, Thinkmap created, among other programs, a library of interconnected data for Seattle’s Experience Music Project that beautifully demonstrated a new way to explore a subject. These visual-display programs show us what might be if we follow the possibilities the digital universe can offer us as readers; if, as Gleick suggests, we focus on the “soul” of the work, not its no-longer-useful shell.

Visual Thesaurus displays possibilities. Clicking on a node takes you deeper in … from Information through the letter S, in this case. Click to view larger.

And after we return from our time-traveling we’ll have a good laugh at the primitive state of today’s e-books and think back to the future, when all those e-ink digital readers will have been turned into retro-looking sushi plates and coasters.

NOTE: DBW has launched an Editorial Forum on LinkedIn, a sub-group for editors and others working in trade publishing to discuss standards, workflow, best practices, and the general Qs that most print people feel when confronted with terms like “workflow.” The Forum is moderated by Anne Kostick and David B. Schlosser. Anne’s weekly column, Digital Reading, discusses the field of User Experience and explores what it offers to trade publishers.

Anne Kostick is a partner in Foxpath IND, a digital-print-web consulting and services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content development, management and publishing. She is also the editor in chief of Dulcinea Media, an online publisher in the educational market, and is the current president of Women’s Media Group.

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