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April 2, 2007

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'Souvenirs of the Way We Felt'

Good piece in The Economist about the future of books:

Books are not primarily artefacts, nor necessarily vehicles for ideas. Rather, as Mr Godin puts it, they are “souvenirs of the way we felt” when we read something. That is something that people are likely to go on buying.

That’s a good line, and at least a little true, I think.

Books are also expensive wallpaper — not a bad thing — and, I swear, little souls, too. It’s all just patterns, right? So books are just crude, durable patterns. And probably still the best passage to 1,000 years from now that we’ve got. Write a book!

P.S. I’ve mentioned it before but Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books is really good.

P.P.S. Another good entry on the future of print over at if:books. Also, good comments on this post.

Posted April 2, 2007 at 11:30 | Comments (9) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Briefly Noted


The codex is still pretty damn nifty technology.

The best book-as-souvenir method I've read recently came from LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy in an interview he gave for Pitchfork. When Murphy reads a book, he signs and dates the back of it when he's finished. He asks his friends who borrow his books to do the same thing.

I've been doing it since the late 80s, so I have these books that have been signed ten times by friends I don't see anymore. It also helps me know-- I'll be like, "When did I first read that?" and I flip to the back, and it's got a date like, "March 1992." I don't know, I've read [Gravity's Rainbow] about four or five times now, and now it's funny. I remember when I first read it, I was like, "What the fuck?" But now it's funny.

Great idea.

How do I not chime in on this one? (Even though I don't really have much new to say, and Tim already stole my best line.)

I have to agree with The Economist that while we may see a reevaluation of what information needs to be transmitted in book form and what may be better suited to the internet, that the book itself is not really in much danger—and fiction in particular. While we're seeing a proliferation of certain types of fan fiction on the internet, largely this is to circumvent copyright and editorial evaluation. I love seeing huge databases of alternative Harry Potter stories (especially, strangely enough, the dirty ones), there's no real danger that people won't go buy Rowling's books because they can get their Harry fix on the web. If anything, the lesson of making stories available for free online seems to be that it boosts sales of the physical book—thus supporting the argument that the book is still the optimum vessel for extended immersion in narrative.

While there is certainly an emotional component to the survival of the book, I would take issue with reducing that to "nostalgia." I'd prefer to say that a book is still the best technology to engage in a particular kind of emotional and intellectual experience based on extended narrative. I'm interested in how certain video games come close, particularly in genre literature—sci-fi and horror—but I think it's revealing that HALO fans buy up the novelizations like candy.

This is great -- totally like I pushed the alarm button for the Snarkmarket Book Patrol!

REALLY good point about the Halo novels, Gavin. As a few people said in that Economist piece, the key attribute of a book -- as yet unreplicated by other media, even crazy big-screen movies and next-gen video games -- is that it can completely transport you.

The funniest thing about the Snarkmarket Book Patrol is that Robin makes us all wear little hats.

They look particularly ridiculous and those of us who -- ahem! -- have a bit more hair than the other members.

On a serious note -- one thing I wonder about sometimes, and I'm sure I'm not the only one, is whether the codex technology will stick around, but the loose-pieces-of-paper not-quite-a-technology.

Newspapers and pamphlets and flyers and other ephemera, even catalogs and phone books, which are great for advertising but not particularly good for keeping things around are much better targets for the internet. The culture of book reading is much more physically specific, and particularly for children (the joy of the comics pages aside) much more intense and long-lasting. And the archival quality is fantastic.

But loose pieces of paper for public circulation? Screw the e-book reader. We need e-newspaper readers. If I could download (or better yet have podcasted) the Times, the Inky, maybe a handful of magazines, in complete browsable and searchable copies that I can take on the subway with me and read while I listen to my iPod? Screw buying -- I would never look at another newspaper again.

Oh yeah. I totally agree. The portable sheet of e-paper with a wireless connection that can load up really well-formatted documents (think PDF) with all the flexibility & linkability of the web... it would change everything. EVERYTHING.

I feel like it's been five years away for like fifteen years now, though.

Cool question, though: Given access to such a device, what would you put on it? Besides the most awesomely rad newspaper you've ever seen, and a cool portable blog, and all the other usual suspects, what else might we invent for that kind of display?

I'm thinking games could be interesting... and not a fancy crossword (well, that too) but something that felt like a comic book or a Choose Your Own Adventure, but was a) interactive and even b) social.

Any other ideas?

Try to think of everything that's currently printed on a single sheet of paper. Content is limited to text and photos -- interaction limited to say, touch or stylus. Note: The iPhone pinch would work great as would the mouse shortcuts from OS X. Next page, please!-- (sharp diagonal motion w/finger).

Sudoku, of course.
Subway, train, and other transportation maps and schedules.
Street Maps. With GPS and Satellite, snap.
Bible verses and sermons, for use at church or home.
Sheet music.
Photos. (Much better than showing on an iPod -- not quite so garish as showing on Apple TV.)
Emails and memos -- to read, anyway.
Comics and comic books.
Travel itineraries.
Speeches and presentations. (Sync it to PowerPoint -- everyone is on the same page.)
Crazy new web material designed explicitly to take advantage of the format.

What I like about it is the simplicity. You READ this stuff -- you don't watch it or really make it DO anything. It doesn't necessarily have to update itself constantly. A daily sync will do. Interactivity is overrated.

I couldn't agree more that the market for ePaper technology in particular is to me replacing all the loose printouts of crap that I normally make to read while on the train or in bed or whenever else I don't want my computer screen on.

Thinking a little more concretely about the possibilities of current or near future technology, the way I see this working:

They can make ePaper as very thin, flexible sheets that only need power when you are actively changing a sheet. You carry around a few of these floppy babies, double sided. You also carry around your ubiquitous handheld computer ala openmoko: this thing is your cellphone, your camera, your GPS, your wireless, your power supply, and it can store your music, video, photos, and all your text documents. (For added near-futurism points, it is built into your underpants or something.) Now when you are done reading your loose ePaper sheets and need new reading material you just swipe the flexible sheet through your handheld, call up some new pages, put your handheld away (or put your pants back over your computerized underwear or whatever) and you're good to go.

They are also now able to make batteries that are thin and flexible, so you could include the power source with the paper, but since ePaper only needs power when the display is changed, that actually doesn't seem necessary.

The ubiquitous computing part of the equation is still a few years off, but much of the rest could be done today. Just write some software for your iPod, mp3 player, or iPhone that allows it to send text documents to the ePaper. I can't wait to replace our laser printer with an ePaper swipe port.

Whoops, forgot to mention that of course, the thing missing from my ePaper vision is the interactivity; there's no input on the actual paper, only perhaps on the magic underpants (and watch out about reaching in there too much of the time on the subway). I tend to agree that interactivity is overrated... But just to throw that in there, a technology I could see working together with the ePaper would be a smart pen.

You print a subtle pattern on the ePaper that won't disrupt your reading experience but that the smart pen can recognize and use to determine what part of the paper you are writing on. The smart pen communicates with your underpants via bluetooth.

For it to be real-time interactive, you'd have to have your ePaper plugged into your underpants all the time, but really ePaper isn't the best display technology anyway if you're going to be changing the image a lot in real-time. For those applications you would use a more traditional screen. But it would give the ePaper that little step more of slow interactivity. For example it would allow you to take margin notes on your reading material and have them be saved directly to your underpants.

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