The book as we know it is dead

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on December 16, 2012

From The News Desk

Some people get misty-eyed when they speak of books. Plato viewed them as “immortal sons deifying their sires” and a Chinese proverb poeticized books as “a garden carried in the pocket.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning believed that “no man can be called friendless who has God and the companionship of good books.” Somerset Maugham ventured, “To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” Ernest Hemingway opined, “There is no friend as loyal as a book.” Stephen King extolled books as “a uniquely portable magic.” P.J. O'Rourke advised to “always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.”

For five thousand years, since the advent of writing on clay tablets in Mesopotamia to quill-wielding monks during the Middle Ages copying classic texts one page at a time to the mass-market chain stores of Barnes & Noble, the book was considered to be, as Merriam-Webster defines it, “a set of written sheets of skin or paper or tablets of wood or ivory,” or “a set of written, printed, or blank sheets bound together into a volume.” In other words, books are simply information that until recently was most efficiently distributed via paper and ink. But books as Plato, Maugham, Hemingway knew them are gradually becoming untethered from their delivery system (i.e. paper and ink bound between two covers) and our very concept of a book is changing. Over the summer, for the first time, American publishers generated more revenue from ebooks than from hardcover books. Meanwhile a bevy of startups and established companies – The Atavist, Vook, Open Road, Amazon, Apple, and others – are experimenting with what exactly constitutes a book, offering shorter works and layering in multimedia.

It’s a testament to the visceral appeal and practical nature of books’ physical form they have endured so long. The book is compact, reasonably durable, long lasting, and stores a lot of information. But it is also a walled garden. Text contained within two covers can’t be easily transferred, and readers are not able to instantly connect and discuss what they are reading. Pages are static and can’t be updated or corrected until the next print run. Once a book is read it takes up space on a shelf or in a box in a basement. A book is not inherently social – if you want to discuss it with someone you have to do that from outside the confines of its pages.

These limitations spring from a book’s physical form, yet as we continue to decouple their text from the archaic print-on-paper delivery system, books remain, at their essence, the same. Sure, nowadays an ebook can be 20,000 words – less than a third the number of words in a traditional hardcover – and Amazon Singles touts a “vast spectrum of reporting, essays, memoirs, narratives, and short stories” at “their natural length.” Startups like Atavist are publishing shorter ebooks with multimedia layered into the text, usually that have sprung from magazine stories. I’ve launched a startup that looks to redefine the book, to make them “moving stories.” None, however, are radical departures.

In our defense, it’s only natural that we have transposed these hardcover limitations on today’s digital books. First, copyright law hamstrings readers’ ability to share text, and new technologies tend to mirror what came before until innovation and consumer demand drive it far beyond initial incremental improvements. The first battlefield tanks looked like heavily armored tractors equipped with cannons; early automobiles were called “horseless carriages” for a reason; the first motorcycles were based on bicycles; the first satellite phones were as clunky as your household telephone. The first movie cameras were used to film theater productions but it took early cinematic geniuses like Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin and Abel Gance to untether the camera from what was and transform it into what it would become: a new art form. A decade ago, when newspapers began serving up stories over the Web, the content mirrored what was offered in the print edition.

What the tank, car, movie, and newspaper have in common is they blossomed into something far beyond their initial prototypes. In the same way that an engineer wouldn't dream of starting with the raw materials for a horseless carriage to design a rad new sports car today, books won’t rely on mere text on a screen with a smattering of images, the stuff that today’s e-books are made of.

My vision for the future of the book is wrapped up in a project I plan to self-publish early next year: a full-length narrative non-fiction book titled “Cloud Racers” about two pilots from the 1930s competing to be the first to fly solo around the world. In addition to the adventure story, which clocks in at 52,000 words, I’ll offer radio and video interviews with the pilots, schematics of the planes, maps, newsreel footage of their accomplishments, photos, movie trailers, and other documentation.

Want to read while listening music of the time plays in the background? I compiled a playlist of popular tunes and radio commercials from the 1930s and early 1940s and want readers to customize these song lists. Anyone who downloads the book (to read on tablets, smartphones or PCs) would be able to highlight and share passages they find appealing with friends and other readers. At some point I’d like to add a wiki so that everyone from historians to hobbyists could add material – perhaps separate biographies for each of the characters and discussion of the planes and the technology of the era.

In fact, every book could spawn a book club, where readers could message the author and each other. While reading is a personal pursuit, it can also be a social activity. One of the joys of reading is being able to discuss what you've read with others. This also affects the balance of power between readers and writers. Suddenly readers can carve out their own journeys. They can either read the story or watch video of newsreel footage, listen to how these pilots sounded when they talked or saw what they looked like when they climbed in and out of their planes, which were constructed of little more than wood, canvas, glue and bailing wire. They can sift through other documents including receipts, schematics and pilots licenses from the 1920s.

There are additional commercial possibilities. Authors could insert a storefront in every book by linking to, say, Amazon, and promoting products. If you publish a book about grilling then you could endorse your favorite tongs or cookbooks, and get a commission on every sale you refer to Amazon. When you get down to it the book will change because it has to change. Technology and economics have always shaped the evolution of art. Starting in the early 19th century painting evolved with new hues like cobalt and cerulean blues, chromium green, then cheap synthetics such as rose madder, ultramarine, and zinc white, followed by the invention of the collapsible paint tube, which offered pre-mixed colors in a more portable form. It became cheaper and more accessible to greater numbers of people, increasing the pool of potential painters and ultimately helped spawn Impressionism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism.

It’s true with music, too. Why were songs so short in the 1920s and '30s? A 78-rpm wax record could only hold that much music (read: data) on a side. With 45-rpm discs songs were stretched to three and four minutes. Then came the advent of the LP (for long-playing) record; suddenly musicians had more than 40 minutes (20 minutes per side) to work with, and songs got longer. In the 1980s, when compact discs hit the market, recording artists had an even larger canvas to work with – 60 minutes or more of music – and that led to the inclusion of more tunes, including some clunkers. It took some getting used to. It also portends the end of the album as we know it, as consumers download only what they want.

A similar dynamic is at work applies to cinema. The earliest movies were crude, short, silent, and shot in black and white. Then came feature-length black-and-white silent films with music soundtracks then "talkies" arrived with The Jazz Singer in 1927. While there were a few isolated movies shot in color before then, none were seen on the big screen until the mid-1930s, although it took Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz before it hit the big time. Now we see high definition and 3-D movies, and there's digital editing and special effects, and cinema continues to evolve. Compare the ways that movies and music have changed over the past 100 years to books. A hardcover book from 1900 is not much different from a hardcover published today.

In time you may view such analog contrivances as museum pieces, bought and sold on eBay as collectibles or tossed into landfills (like vinyl records). While some may love how books smell (a combination of mold and glue) and the way they feel in your hand, the classic book is unadulterated analog in an increasingly digital world. That won't last.

And if Groucho Marx had owned an ereader with a backlit screen, he never would have said: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”