Friday, 31 May 2013

The Book as Object

I was lucky enough to participate on a panel today, at the University of Oxford English Graduate Conference, speaking on the subject of The Book as Object. I was joined on the panel by Paul Nash (Oxford University's chief Printing Tutor) and Stephen Walter (a text/map artist). We each spoke for 10-15 minutes and then had a fascinating panel discussion afterwards.

If you were at the conference, here is the link to the Transmedia article I mentioned.

If you weren't at the conference, read on for an edited transcript of my speech on the subject of The Book as Object and how that role is changing in the digital age:

Despite the fact I hail from a digital background, I'd like to misquote Shakespeare by emphasising that I come today to praise the print book, not to bury it. In fact, I once half-wrote a blog piece in which I conducted an imaginary interview with “The Book” to find out about its long history and how it felt about these young digital whippersnappers who were busy prophesising its imminent death. I did consider re-enacting that interview for you today, but I realised that it would be a bit like when Clint Eastwood had that conversation with a chair! So instead, I want to look at the state of the book from four perspectives: beauty, utility, tactility and interactivity.

Let’s start with beauty, because it’s the easiest one. Here are three digital devices – an iPhone, a Sony Reader and an Amazon Kindle Fire. You’ll notice how all three look fundamentally the same.

And here are three books I picked off my shelves this morning – Maggot Moon, Scott Pilgrim and Stardust.

You’ll notice how different they look from each other, how aesthetically pleasing each is in their own way. I’m not a minimalist (as you’ve probably gathered), I don’t worship at the throne of Apple and find it quite baffling how people get together to compare smartphones when they all look exactly alike! Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a marked contrast if I had a pile of mass-market paperbacks in front of me, but I do think that books are beautiful and each one is genuinely unique.

Of course, the content displayed on a digital device can be beautiful, and the high resolution, deep colour screens offered by the best tablets can make for a visual feast. But unlike the books that overflow from my shelves, once you turn that device off it becomes a featureless mirror, reflecting nothing but middle-class boredom.

I saw a recent article where a photographer was charting the visual development of various household objects through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. And what I found so depressing was that for many of these myriad different objects – the music player, the alarm clock, the telephone – the final modern incarnation was the same object – a smartphone. We seem to have swapped objects of beauty for an object of multi-functional utility – which handily brings me on to the second perspective of books I wanted to talk about.

Utility is an area where the dominance of the print book is less clear-cut. If we’re choosing something purely on its functional merits, what wins out – the single-function, single-title print book or the multifunctional Swiss Army knife that is the modern smartphone?

I believe that for deep, linear reading of either fictional or non-fictional texts, the printed book is still the best vehicle. It’s light, portable, needs no batteries or subscriptions. It contains no intrusive adverts, hyperlinks or surveillance technology. In the absence of a direct brain-to-brain link, it is the purest way of transmitting content between author and reader.

But for non-linear content, especially in the world of reference where I work, the book has (up until recently) merely been the most convenient way of delivering the content, not the best. If you consider a printed dictionary, it has an A-Z structure only because that has been the most efficient method for the user to find the entry they’re interested in.

When we free the dictionary from the printed page, we discover all sorts of new ways to index the content that greatly improves the experience. When you want a dictionary definition online or in an app, you can simply type the word in and get straight to the entry, or even use voice control if you don’t mind looking a bit mad. No need for endless page turning, or the disappointment when you think the definition isn’t in there because you’ve momentarily forgotten how to alphabetise! Dictionaries, along with journals, are the areas of academic publishing that are experiencing the most aggressive digital growth and the fastest falling off of print sales. And this, to my mind, is not a cause for concern.

So, on to tactility, which is to say touch. I could have picked smell here, which would have been incredibly easy to cover because books have a wonderfully evocative smell and digital devices don’t really smell of anything at all. But touch is interesting, because it’s been one of the selling points for smartphones and tablets since the iPhone first emerged. We’ve all got very used to using touch to navigate through apps and around the home screen, even to the extent of using two and three finger gestures to execute specific tasks like rotating and zooming. And I’m sure you’ve seen the videos of these poor young children trying to tap on the pictures in a printed magazine, because their parents consider that leaving a baby with an iPad is a suitable alternative to reading them an actual picture book.

But for all this digital tactility, the touch of a printed book remains a very individual and evocative thing. We feel the weight of the volume in our hands, run a fingertip along the binding. We can navigate from one end of the book to the other at incredible speed, just by using our thumbs. There are a lot of claims made for the ease of use of touch screen devices, but really, what could be simpler and more intuitive than picking up a printed book?

My final category is interactivity. Again, the digital medium seems like a slam dunk. E-books can have so many hyperlinks embedded in them that your fingers get sore from all that tapping and swiping. But I think this ignores the effects of reading a linear printed book at a neurological level. Getting engrossed in a linear fiction book is a very interactive experience – it sets off all kinds of fireworks inside the brain, and can literally change the way we think and approach the world around us.

Digital publications, however, offer totally new ways to interact with words and language. I’ve already talked about how dictionaries can be searched and interrogated, but this applies to many other subjects. Pioneers in the field of true digital books such as Touch Press are producing fascinating new iPad apps based on existing texts like T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. These apps go beyond the capabilities of the printed book, allowing users to examine the original folios, hear dramatisations of scenes and delve into the related sources that inspired the work. They complement the original book, without supplanting it, like having a mini research library in your hand.

Sally Gardner’s award-winning Maggot Moon is another example of a title that’s had a digital makeover that really enhances the original text. The protagonist of Maggot Moon is dyslexic, and the iBook version offers iPad users a host of quizzes, videos and activities to help readers see the world through dyslexic eyes.

The iBook index
A test of memory
(Click through to see larger versions of the screenshots)

All this digital augmentation is great, but I’m most excited about the possibilities for interactivity within the narrative itself. Where can we take the story in this brave digital age? Rather than providing distraction, could carefully curated hyperlinks within a story actually serve to deepen the emotional experience for the reader? In the form of storytelling called Transmedia, readers are presented with a tale that spans many different forms of media, with narrative threads jumping between websites, comics, books, TV episodes and even Twitter feeds.

As a final interactive possibility, what about reading an intelligent story that tracks your emotional response and uses that information to make the narrative even more scary, even more thrilling? There have already been successful experiments with branching films that monitor the viewer’s heart rate and skin temperature. With the developments in eye tracking technology and facial recognition on modern digital devices, can the artificially intelligent story be far behind?

In the past, it’s always been the case that you were the one reading the book. In the future, perhaps it’ll be the book reading you.


  1. The geography of a print book wins out for me - that feeling of an actual journey through the depth of pages has not yet been replicated on an e-reader and I don't see how it can be without makking an actual book. Don't get me wrong - e-readers are great, I use one, but I'll always prefer books. Always.

  2. great pick off! Stardust, would be my pick too!

  3. I think that you make a very good point that the best digital makeovers seek to enhance rather than replace the original print version. You've chosen a very good example in Maggot Moon - the publisher has taken an intelligent approach to both the print and digital versions of the story.