The endless hand-wringing over the death of print books — and its supposed corollary, diminished intellectualism — overlooks a key point: Digital media can actually enhance how we read.
So says the innovation and design giant IDEO, which yesterday released a short film on "The Future of the Book" that blows the binding off conventional notions of how we consume the written word. In Ideo's telling, tomorrow's books will let you join online discussions, fact-check, and even dictate the particulars of a plot — all in a tablet-friendly format. They've come up with three distinct reading concepts: Coupland, Nelson, and Alice. Deets below, but first, the film:
Nelson is all about expanding how we understand text. Think of it as CliffNotes on steroids. You can link to current news stories about your book, read up on debates it has sparked, and vet its accuracy through a community-run fact-checking feature. You can even look up how the discourse around it has changed over time. Want to know what sources Al Gore used to write An Inconvenient Truth? It'll tell you. It'll also tell you who's referenced his book since.
This concept is the social network of publishing. Designed to help people "keep up with the latest must-reads," to quote the film, it suggests books based on what people in your company are reading. It also has features for creating book clubs and online reading discussions. Bonus: If enough employees buy a book, it'll automatically become available in the company's library for all to peruse — no more passing around dog-eared copies of Rich Dad, Poor Dad in secret.
Alice is a cross between a video game and Choose Your Own Adventure. Among other features, you can add to the narrative, talk to characters, and find keys to unlock plot twists. The idea here is to blur "the lines between reality and fiction," as the film says (which good books have always done, but we digress). Obviously, it'd only work for fiction and certain types of fiction at that — ones in which narrative takes a back seat to action, ie. vampire novels, bodice rippers, anything by James Patterson.
Are we seeing the videogamization of reading? Purists might take it that way. How can you enjoy the art of a story when you're constantly linking away from it? The truth is that books have been interactive for a long time. Think of Shakespeare, which is almost always annotated, or Nabokov's Pale Fire, which, as Pentagram's Michael Beirut has astutely pointed out, reads like hypertext. Here, IDEO's just taking the next logical step. And soon, the technology will be advanced enough to turn their concepts into reality.
For an excellent interview with IDEO's Duane Bray and Robert Lenne about "The Future of the Book," go the Brian Lehrer Show's Web site here.
[Images courtesy of IDEO]