Back in the days when I had to take several trains and buses just to get to my workplace, commuters leaning against subway doors with crumpled paper-back novels were a common sight.
When I see people sitting in bus stations nowadays, they are mostly staring into their gadgets.
The crumpled paperback novel is being replaced by ebook reading apps and devices such as the Kindle.
But does it mean that books are dying out?
Or are they on the verge of a huge revival?
1. The Book Is An Information Service
It was Marshall Mc Luhan who coined this phrase. “The book is an information service.”
That’s a smart way to put it because it describes the function of the book regardless of its material form. As esoteric as that may sound, this distinction will become more and more important in the future because it doesn’t limit us to thinking in terms of printed paper, paperback and hard-cover.
At first glance, the text-book is the best example of such an “information service”. By reading it you candownload the information from the book into your own mind, committing it to memory, creating mash-ups with other bits of information or flushing it after the next exam.
But if you think about it, not just text-books are information services. Every book, whether non-fiction or fiction can be understood in such a way, allowing you to download any kind of information, be it for entertainment, education or a mixture of the two.
2. The Book Is The Original App
Despite the original meaning of app as an application, tool or otherwise instrumental software, the ubiquitous app of today is much more than that.
It’s a lifestyle product. An ephemeral artifact no company can afford not to offer.
We used to show each other our libraries, boasting with the books we read (or only bought and never read). Nowadays we compare app-collections, collect, copy and trade them.
At its core, the app is an information service, just like the book, either being entertaining, educating or increasingly often a mix of the two.
Interestingly the current price-structures of e-books (especially on Kindle) is reflecting this similarity to the app.
More and more ebooks are being sold between $0.99 and $4.99 which is about the range of premium apps in popular stores.
Is it a coincidence?
3. Novels are Analog Virtual Reality
Game-developers are busy creating environments which are more and more immersive, which put the player into more and more intricate worlds complete with their own characters, soundtracks and (virtual) cultures developing around the game.
And yet, most game-interfaces are far from immersive. We still interact with mouse, keyboard or controller. More recently, motion-tracking has become added to consoles, but we’re still largely separated from game environments.
There is no direct way to “jack in” to these worlds that doesn’t include clumsy headgear, gloves or other retro-tech.
On the other hand, the novel or any fictitious literature does it without any special (technical requirements).
Reading a well-written book you are instantly transported to a completely immersive world full of color, texture, shapes, smells, sounds, feelings and relationships.
And it’s all happening directly in the brain, just through reading word after word, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, allowing you to explore environments from a first person or any other perspective.
Many people will say that it’s not the same like playing a computer game because you can’t interact with the world you’re immersed in.
And, while the plot, characters and dialogues are fixed by the author, it’s the reader who creates this world in his mind.
The book is one of the most effective ways of virtual reality, allowing the reader not just to act within a range of limited and pre-selected choices but creating whole galaxies from the scratch.
It’s words that make it happen. Whether they are read on paper or from a screen, or heard through headphones or through a speaker doesn’t matter.
4. Books Are Boundlessly Customizable
No two people experience a good book the exact same way.
The reader doesn’t just re-create a fixed image of the author’s imagination, resulting in an exact carbon-copy.
Instead, each reader creates the book anew through his own imagination, constantly changing the experience.
If customization and personalization are the staples of contemporary culture, the book has got it all.
Not just in little pinches. But in full-fledged oceanic tempests.
5. The Form is Shifting, The Idea Is Staying
The discussions whether an ebook is better than a paperback (or vice versa) is completely besides the point.
Also, the recent trend of augmenting ebooks with video, audie and interactive elements isn’t all that revolutionary, considering the fact that good writing has all the characteristics necessary for an immersive, interactive, informative and entertaining experience.
Movies are great.
So are video-games.
But the visuals, feelings and visceral participation of reading a great book can be a lot stronger than any visual representation on a screen.
The process by which this happens is not based on gadgets or even household electricity but on words.
Therefore, any way in which words can be displayed, read, or otherwise processed audiovisually will never die out but only proliferate through the expansion of various media.
The book as we know it today (bound in paper) will almost certainly disappear.
And in 50 years from now “a book” will probably look and feel very different from now.
img: Some rights reserved by Frederic della Faille