What We Talk About When We Talk About Books


by - May 22nd, 2011


Another Sydney Writers’ Festival comes to a close, and yet another talk about the ‘future of the book’, this time by acclaimed science writer James Gleick in the closing address of the festival tonight. Gleick’s talk drew heavily from his new book, Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. Talks of this nature have become so commonplace at writers’ festivals and in publishing circles that a significant amount of time was set aside to debunk, ridicule and then gently agree with some of the more egregious clichés in this particular genre of literary talk.

To wit: a certain amount of rambling about the smell of books. I’ll be eternally grateful to Gleick for introducing me to the term biblionecrophilia (borrowed from Ben Ehrenreich at the LA Review of Books). However, while he did a good job of making the smell of books feel like an unimportant issue, he spent a good ten minutes on the topic and still left me with the impression that he secretly loves a good whiff of the pages of a slim leatherbound volume. I can’t blame him: I don’t mind the occasional whiff myself.

Gleick also spent a lot of time on the myth of the death of the book. He rounded up a whole herd of related tropes: the death of publishing, printing, the author, the written word and the ‘long form narrative’. All were given a reprieve, thankfully, though he does think some traditional publishers might not “yet think that the experience of ebooks should be beautiful.” He also believes that the publishers who triumph will be those who “regain confidence in their traditional virtues”, especially the “art of editing”. I couldn’t agree more with both assertions, though neither are breaking new ground, as far as observations about the future of the book go.

Having said this, Gleick stopped short of allowing that the form of the book – whether it is within the container of physical pages or inside an e-reading device – will ever change dramatically. The book, he said, is a “narrow communications channel” – and that is a good thing. While he seemed emphatically against the idea of hypertext fiction, he seems to assume that the failure of that venture to make in-roads into serious literature therefore means that interactive fiction never will – and will always be something separate from ‘the book’. The videos, animations and other graphical quirks of ‘enhanced’ ebooks, are no more than improved versions of the photographs and line drawings found in traditional non-fiction books. “Books, after all, have contained pictures, along with words, from the earliest times.” However, he says:

I don’t want hyperlinks in my books, or in the books I’m reading; I don’t want social bookmarking, or opportunities for online dating, or any other form of multitasking. I don’t need a chance to create avatars for my favourite characters. I don’t want anything, that is, to take me out of the book. The book is not a multimedia spectacle with subtitles … They talk about mash-ups, where the creative user can mix and mingle fragments from books at will. They encourage user interfaces that allow annotations by the reader, not just in their private margins, but collective sharing … Books are to be liquefied, seeped out of their bindings. There are smart and famous people who talk as if this is a good thing. I think they couldn’t be more wrong about what books are and what they are destined to become.

Although I’m of two minds myself about the book transforming into a multimedia spectacular, I don’t rule this out as either categorically a bad thing or an impossible one. Not only that, but many of the features Gleick outlines as being both undesirable and impossible have already been implemented by Amazon and others in e-readers that are available for purchase right now. Yet the author, for all the research and historical evidence he has accumulated demonstrating time and again the inevitability of change – still firmly believes that the narrative long form book is both superior to other forms of storytelling and will not ever be superseded. Does this come from any kind of evidence? Or is this just what James Gleick wants to happen?

My question for you all today is what we talk about, now and in the future, when we talk about books. It seems clear that the establishment is (reluctantly) ready to accept the ebook as a tolerable receptacle of book-like knowledge – but what about the enhanced ebook? What about fully interactive book apps? Where do you draw the line? And how much do you think the boundaries of what we consider a book now will change in the future? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.


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Joel Naoum (113 Posts)

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12 Responses to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Books”

  1. Bernadette Says:

    I can’t say never but right now I don’t see myself being terribly interested in book ‘apps’ or other enhancements but who knows? I do know that I’m not a terribly visual person, but I do like listening so maybe I’d be interested in a book with some kind of audio enhancement??? No idea what (I don’t mean normal audio books, I already listen to those).

    For me though when I am caught up in a story that’s all I want – it’s one of the reasons I bought the eReader I bought – I don’t want hyperlinks or other stuff when I’m reading (if I want to look up a location or something in google I can make a note or get off my bum and go look at a computer – it doesn’t need to be instant for me). As for collaborative books – no thanks – sounds suspiciously like my day-job.

    I suspect these things will develop but I don’t know that they’ll overtake books as we know them, probably just co-exist. Just like movies and TV do – I’m sure someone thought those would kill books back in the day but they haven’t – they just offer people options for getting stories.

  2. Joel Blacklock Says:

    I think I’m in agreement with your ambivalence, Bernadette! It’s not particularly what I want, but I can certainly see the use of it in some cases – and I definitely think there’s a chance this kind of stuff will develop naturally.

  3. Bernadette Says:

    I can’t say never but right now I don’t see myself being terribly interested in book ‘apps’ or other enhancements but who knows? I do know that I’m not a terribly visual person, but I do like listening so maybe I’d be interested in a book with some kind of audio enhancement??? No idea what (I don’t mean normal audio books, I already listen to those).

    For me though when I am caught up in a story that’s all I want – it’s one of the reasons I bought the eReader I bought – I don’t want hyperlinks or other stuff when I’m reading (if I want to look up a location or something in google I can make a note or get off my bum and go look at a computer – it doesn’t need to be instant for me). As for collaborative books – no thanks – sounds suspiciously like my day-job.

    I suspect these things will develop but I don’t know that they’ll overtake books as we know them, probably just co-exist. Just like movies and TV do – I’m sure someone thought those would kill books back in the day but they haven’t – they just offer people options for getting stories.

  4. Joel Blacklock Says:

    I think I’m in agreement with your ambivalence, Bernadette! It’s not particularly what I want, but I can certainly see the use of it in some cases – and I definitely think there’s a chance this kind of stuff will develop naturally.

  5. Jo Vraca Says:

    I’m a huge fan of my Sony Reader. I was thinking recently it might be time to upgrade to something with wifi, but then I realised that one of the big reasons why I LOVE my Sony Reader is because it doesn’t have wifi. It does, however, let me see images (b/w) and read the book. If the book has been well-designed then it might incorporate hyperlinks to other parts of the book (a simple example is the TOC or index to the relevant page). I don’t want any enhancements. A book is a story, and the only interruption I want is when I need to look up a word in the Reader’s dictionary.

    But, what about reference books? What about illustrated novels? I guess we tend to think “book” and see an image of a A- or B-format paperback but we forget that “book” means so many things.

    Ebooks are exciting, though, right?–I mean, when I was travelling heaps, I would have loved to carry around one slim piece of equipment instead of ten fat paperbacks. I DO mourn the gradual loss of printed books, but perhaps for all the wrong reasons, mostly linked to ego–how the hell am I going to judge someone based on their book collection (or lack thereof) if they don’t have a bookshelf?

    But back to apps and interactivity—well, as I said, it depends on the type of book. For a narrative work, nope, no way, just words and maybe some photos for a bio. No added distractions, please, I have enough already.

  6. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Yes, it’s an interesting quandary – for hundreds of years the ‘book’ has been the container for virtually all knowledge. But now we have other ways of storing and accessing it, and for some types of knowledge, like encyclopedias, dictionaries, reference titles and other non-fiction (at the very least), the book container doesn’t seem to make sense any more. Nobody would argue that Wikipedia is a ‘book’. But what about a dictionary downloaded to your Kindle? Is that a book? Does the name of it even matter?

  7. Jo Vraca Says:

    I’m a huge fan of my Sony Reader. I was thinking recently it might be time to upgrade to something with wifi, but then I realised that one of the big reasons why I LOVE my Sony Reader is because it doesn’t have wifi. It does, however, let me see images (b/w) and read the book. If the book has been well-designed then it might incorporate hyperlinks to other parts of the book (a simple example is the TOC or index to the relevant page). I don’t want any enhancements. A book is a story, and the only interruption I want is when I need to look up a word in the Reader’s dictionary.

    But, what about reference books? What about illustrated novels? I guess we tend to think “book” and see an image of a A- or B-format paperback but we forget that “book” means so many things.

    Ebooks are exciting, though, right?–I mean, when I was travelling heaps, I would have loved to carry around one slim piece of equipment instead of ten fat paperbacks. I DO mourn the gradual loss of printed books, but perhaps for all the wrong reasons, mostly linked to ego–how the hell am I going to judge someone based on their book collection (or lack thereof) if they don’t have a bookshelf?

    But back to apps and interactivity—well, as I said, it depends on the type of book. For a narrative work, nope, no way, just words and maybe some photos for a bio. No added distractions, please, I have enough already.

  8. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Yes, it’s an interesting quandary – for hundreds of years the ‘book’ has been the container for virtually all knowledge. But now we have other ways of storing and accessing it, and for some types of knowledge, like encyclopedias, dictionaries, reference titles and other non-fiction (at the very least), the book container doesn’t seem to make sense any more. Nobody would argue that Wikipedia is a ‘book’. But what about a dictionary downloaded to your Kindle? Is that a book? Does the name of it even matter?

  9. Celia Says:

    Ok so ‘book’ has been in existence since before Chaucer, but not always used as we think of it. And for the written word, there’s been Sumerian clay tablets, papyrus rolls, wood & wax blocks, codex, palimpsests, quatternions, … And after printing we reliably had The Book. So I can quite see why we wouldn’t be changing the meaning any time soon. Sorry sarcasm, lowest form of wit and all that. The comment about TV from Bernadette is very good and you’re right, we can’t stop or control the change and Joel, you’re spot on – the name won’t matter.

  10. Celia Says:

    Ok so ‘book’ has been in existence since before Chaucer, but not always used as we think of it. And for the written word, there’s been Sumerian clay tablets, papyrus rolls, wood & wax blocks, codex, palimpsests, quatternions, … And after printing we reliably had The Book. So I can quite see why we wouldn’t be changing the meaning any time soon. Sorry sarcasm, lowest form of wit and all that. The comment about TV from Bernadette is very good and you’re right, we can’t stop or control the change and Joel, you’re spot on – the name won’t matter.

  11. Luke Says:

    Personally I’m not too interested in creating avatars for characters, but I can see it becoming popular for stories that have a cult around them where fan art and fan fiction are commmon. Even a film such as Twin Peaks falls within this category. Supplementary material can be really cool. For example, hyperlinks could be interesting for books that contain a lot of references. I recall a fan website made for Willian Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition” that contained many images of the places and things referenced in the story. Many detailed books have companion books for the reader who wants to understand more. But then again, I kind of like it when things like that aren’t contained within the story but must be searched for by the reader. I guess I’m aligned with Gleick when he says he doesn’t want anything to take him out of the book. It could become a bit like ad breaks on TV. But if enhancements can be created that increase the immersive quality of the story I think they will be popular.

  12. Luke Says:

    Personally I’m not too interested in creating avatars for characters, but I can see it becoming popular for stories that have a cult around them where fan art and fan fiction are commmon. Even a film such as Twin Peaks falls within this category. Supplementary material can be really cool. For example, hyperlinks could be interesting for books that contain a lot of references. I recall a fan website made for Willian Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition” that contained many images of the places and things referenced in the story. Many detailed books have companion books for the reader who wants to understand more. But then again, I kind of like it when things like that aren’t contained within the story but must be searched for by the reader. I guess I’m aligned with Gleick when he says he doesn’t want anything to take him out of the book. It could become a bit like ad breaks on TV. But if enhancements can be created that increase the immersive quality of the story I think they will be popular.