As I read Kevin Kelly´s "Fate of the Book" I come to wonder what this debate he´s referring to is all about? Is it about form or content? Is is about texts as opposed to video or audio? Is it about texts of a certain minimum length and/or structure as opposed to text snippets? Or is it about a certain physical container for texts as opposed to digital texts? Or is it about certain types of physical containers?
Until digital word processing it was pretty clear what a book was: a text longer than a couple of pages bound and put between covers. Text of a minimum length in a certain physical form made a book.
Since then, though, because we all write texts using word processing software and don´t need to print them out anymore to have other´s read them, since then what a book is has changed. Or at least if you talk about books you need to be more specific what you mean.
Today, I´d say, a book can be at least two different things: it can be the traditional book as described above. Go to a bookstore of your choice and you find thousands of them there. Or a book can be just a digital text you call a "book". It could be just 10 pages with a single sentence on each page or it could be 500 pages full of small print text. If you assume this point of view, it´s pretty much up to you what you call a book.
Well, before you call a digital text a book, I think, something more needs to be added. Just text is not sufficient. Otherwise any blog posting like this would be a book. If you want a text to be a book, you need to prep it up a little bit. You need to make it print-ready. It should be typeset on electronic sheets of paper; also it should sport at least a title page. But other than that... pretty much any text can be called a book. Because, if you can print it and bind it, well, it becomes a "traditional" book.
So my bottom line is: essentially the book is in the eye of the beholder. Take any text you like, print it out, bind it, voilá, there´s your book.
But that´s certainly not what the debate is about. What is in question is: What´s the fate of texts longer than a couple of pages? And what´s the fate of the physical form of the book - regardless of whether it containers 5, 50 or 500 pages?
Physical Books - Quo Vadis?
It´s difficult but I´ll try to abstract from my personal taste. I like physical books. But just because I like them they don´t need to exist indefinitely. So if I try to subtract my emotional attachment from the picture, what´s left?
I think the benefit of having a physical book in one´s hands is underestimated. Reading a book is more than "taking in" a text by scanning pages full of letters. It´s like following a conversation right in front of you. There are not just words, but real people who send signals on different "channels". It´s how they look, how they move, how their whole body language is. Following a conversation in a conference call is much more difficult.
Likewise reading a text online is more difficult than reading it printed out. And reading it on just a couple of loose pages that came out of a desktop laser printer is more difficult than reading it as a book. A book provides a context, it provides input through more than the visual sense. A physical book makes a text tangible - even more than some printouts. It literally manifests the thoughts behind a text.
If we realize this, we realize the age of the physical book is not over. Because there will always be texts which highly benefit from being "taken in" with more than the visual sense. And we should not think ePaper or Amazon´s Kindle are a danger for physical books. They simply don´t provide the total sensual input of a physical book.
Whoever want´s to read most effectively and with most please will always want a book in his/her hands.
Digital Books - Quo Vadis?
Digital books, i.e. digital texts of a certain length and form, as opposed to blog postings or podcasts are on a rise, too. Linear text is not dead. As useful as linked digital text snippets and other media are, digital books will stay useful too. Why´s that?
It´s because of the benefits of longer sequential texts for readers and authors alike.
Readers benefit from sequential texts because they help guide and focus their thoughts. The ability to choose among any text at any moment is good; but for most people it´s hard to not just be free to decide what to do next, but to be actually forced to decide. Especially when reading for recreational purposes and learning something new it thus is a virtue to provide guidance and focus for the reader´s mind. A digital book lowers the cognitive effort a reader needs to invest to immerse herself in a topic.
That´s not to say we all should only read books. Of course not! I just want to put books and other media and textual forms in perspective. Different forms are optimal for different purposes. Until quite recently there were only physical books to transport knowledge and stories in a 1 to many way. That´s completely different today. So we can and have to choose which form and media to use for which purpose. Today almost everyone can choose between digital text, video, audio, pictures, and drawings - all of different forms. That´s good and won´t go away anymore. But it does not mean longer sequential texts are of no use anymore. Right to the contrary! We´re just in a transitional period where we need to assess all the new toys at our fingertips. It´s like with desktop publishing some decades ago: when it was new, everybody tried out all those new fonts. And many DTP products looked ugly. This period is over, we´ve learned how to use all those options in a beneficial manner. Times Roman and the Golden Section have survived the turmoil. So will the digital book.
Not only readers benefit from sequential texts, authors do, too. Finding an easy to read sequential textual layout for a topic is a process which excersises the author´s complete knowledge about his topic. And not only that, it also requires him to think very hard about the reader, the receiver of his text message. Shredding a topic into hypertext pieces is easy. But it easily puts the burden on the reader: he´s the one who needs to piece together the picture of the whole topic.
Hypertexts and text snippets seem to have "explorative learning" and the ubiquitous "time crunch" in their favor. But in the end, quite often they leave the reader alone, don´t provide guidance, and cost more time than a (good) sequential text.
An author should not let himself get lured into producing modern forms of text just because they are, well, modern and make writing easier for him. An author always needs to have his audience in mind. And that´s easier if he needs to wreck his brain to come up with a single sequential text for whatever he´s to say.
The Future of the Book
Their is a future for books (and magazines, for that matter). But it will look different than the past. Books cannot stay the same.
Firstly printed books need to become digital. Only eBooks provide all the flexibility readers want to have - including the option to print and bind them.
Secondly the eBooks of the future need to become modular, at least whatever is not a story. Again because readers want the flexibility to just buy or print parts of a larger textual body. Why buy a whole eBook if I´m just interested in chapters 6 and 27 out of 48? Such flexibility was not possible in a world of physical books only - but it is in the digital world.
Thirdly eBooks or just any text needs to be easily printed and bound as a book. Printing texts is not on a decline but rather on a rise. As argued above reading text on paper bound as a book makes understanding it easier. And it still makes it much more portable. That means, whoever wants to read effectively with his/her whole body will want to print longer sequential texts and bind them. Print-on-Demand (PoD) and desktop laser printers are not up to that task. A world full of eBooks needs new, to be invented printing services.