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kottke.org posts about reading

Towards the Future Book

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 21, 2018

Kyle Bean - The Future of the Book.jpg

Writing in Wired, Craig Mod expertly dissects both the e-book revolution that never happened and the quieter one that actually did:

The Future Book was meant to be interactive, moving, alive. Its pages were supposed to be lush with whirling doodads, responsive, hands-on. The old paperback Zork choose-your-own-adventures were just the start. The Future Book would change depending on where you were, how you were feeling. It would incorporate your very environment into its story—the name of the coffee shop you were sitting at, your best friend’s birthday. It would be sly, maybe a little creepy. Definitely programmable. Ulysses would extend indefinitely in any direction you wanted to explore; just tap and some unique, mega-mind-blowing sui generis path of Joycean machine-learned words would wend itself out before your very eyes.

Prognostications about how technology would affect the form of paper books have been with us for centuries. Each new medium was poised to deform or murder the book: newspapers, photography, radio, movies, television, videogames, the internet.

That isn’t what happened. The book was neither murdered nor fundamentally transformed in its appearance, its networked quality, or its multimedia status. But the people and technologies around the book all did fundamentally change, and arguably, changed for the better.

Our Future Book is composed of email, tweets, YouTube videos, mailing lists, crowdfunding campaigns, PDF to .mobi converters, Amazon warehouses, and a surge of hyper-affordable offset printers in places like Hong Kong.

For a “book” is just the endpoint of a latticework of complex infrastructure, made increasingly accessible. Even if the endpoint stays stubbornly the same—either as an unchanging Kindle edition or simple paperback—the universe that produces, breathes life into, and supports books is changing in positive, inclusive ways, year by year. The Future Book is here and continues to evolve. You’re holding it. It’s exciting. It’s boring. It’s more important than it has ever been.

This is all clever, sharply observed, and best of all, true. But Craig is a very smart man, so I want to push him a little bit.

What he’s describing is the present book. The present book is an instantiation of the future book, in St. Augustine’s sense of the interconnectedness and unreality of the past, future, and eternity in the ephemerality of the present, sure. But what motivated discussions of the future book throughout the 20th and in the early 21st century was the animating force of the idea that the book had a future that was different from the present, whose seeds we could locate in the present but whose tree was yet to flourish. Craig Mod gives us a mature forest and says, “behold, the future.” But the present state of the book and discussions around the book feel as if that future has been foreclosed on; that all the moves that were left to be made have already been made, with Amazon the dominant inertial force locking the entire ecosystem into place.

But, in the entire history of the book, these moments of inertia have always been temporary. The ecosystem doesn’t remain locked in forever. So right now, Amazon, YouTube, and Kickstarter are the dominant players. Mailchimp being joined by Substack feels a little like Coke being joined by Pepsi; sure, it’s great to have the choice of a new generation, but the flavor is basically the same. So where is the next disruption going to come from?

I think the utopian moment for the future of the book ended not when Amazon routed its vendors and competitors, although the Obama DOJ deserves some blame in retrospect for handing them that win. I think it ended when the Google Books settlement died, leading to Google Books becoming, basically abandonware, when it was initially supposed to be the true Library of Babel. I think that project, the digitization of all printed matter, available for full-text search and full-image browsing on any device, and possible conversion to audio formats and chopped up into newsletters, and whatever way you want to re-imagine these old and new books, remains the gold standard for the future of the book.

There are many people and institutions still working on making this approach reality. The Library of Congress’s new digital-first, user-focused mission statement is inspiring. The Internet Archive continues to do the Lord’s work in digitizing and making available our digital heritage. HathiTrust is still one of the best ideas I’ve ever heard. The retrenchment of the Digital Public Library of America is a huge blow. But the basic idea of linking together libraries and cultural institutions into an enormous network with the goal of making their collections available in common is an idea that will never die.

I think there’s a huge commercial future for the book, and for reading more broadly, rooted in the institutions of the present that Craig identifies: crowdfunding, self-publishing, Amazon as a portal, email newsletters, etc. etc. But the noncommercial future of the book is where all the messianic energy still remains. It’s still the greatest opportunity and the hardest problem we have before us. It’s the problem that our generation has to solve. And at the moment, we’re nowhere.

A budget for Babel

posted by Tim Carmody   May 04, 2011

Last night I started thinking about e-books, partly because I was frustrated that I wanted to buy some books that aren’t available for Kindle. (If you’re curious, the two I was pining over were John Ashbery’s new translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Eugene Jolas’s Critical Writings: 1924-1951.)

Truth be told, I probably would have talked myself out of the purchases anyways, because I haven’t had any spare money for my drug of choice (books) in a while. But I was bothered because I couldn’t buy them. I wanted them, and if I had enough money, I wanted them all. And if I could have them all, I’d find a way to get enough money.

So I took to Twitter with this idea, with the following results.

So, so far, we’ve got a few different possible models (assuming everything could be worked out on the back end with author consumption, etc., which is a pretty gigantic assumption):

  1. Every book that’s ever been made digital or easily could be made digital (I’ll come back to this second point later);
  2. The same thing for movies and TVs. Which might be an even bigger, more popular idea;
  3. A curated digital book club/book channel, a la Netflix, that offers you enough popular and backlist material to keep you busy;
  4. What else?

Casey Gollan also pointed me to a similar thought-experiment a couple of years ago by Kevin Kelly:

Very likely, in the near future, I won’t “own” any music, or books, or movies. Instead I will have immediate access to all music, all books, all movies using an always-on service, via a subscription fee or tax. I won’t buy - as in make a decision to own — any individual music or books because I can simply request to see or hear them on demand from the stream of ALL. I may pay for them in bulk but I won’t own them. The request to enjoy a work is thus separated from the more complicated choice of whether I want to “own” it. I can consume a movie, music or book without having to decide or follow up on ownership.

For many people this type of instant universal access is better than owning. No responsibility of care, backing up, sorting, cataloging, cleaning, or storage. As they gain in public accessibility, books, music and movies are headed to become social goods even though they might not be paid by taxes. It’s not hard to imagine most other intangible goods becoming social goods as well. Games, education, and health info are also headed in that direction.

And Mark Sample noted that really, you already can get almost any book, movie, TV show, etc., if you’re willing to put in a little work and don’t mind circumventing the law.

Here’s a thought: How would this change the way we read? If I haven’t laid down money for a particular book, would I feel less obligated to stick it through to the end? I’d probably do a lot more dipping and diving. I’d be quicker to say, “this isn’t doing it for me — what else is on?”

And remember, a lot of the books — cookbooks, textbooks, reference material — would be geared for browsing, not reading straight through. We might actually find ourselves plunking down extra money for a digital app with a better UI.

Ditto, imagine the enhanced prestige of rare books that were off this universal grid, or whose three-dimensionality couldn’t be reduced (without difficulty, if at all) to an e-book.

Still, I think whatever I pay for cable, internet, my cellphone’s data plan, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, Dropbox backups, etc. — I’d pay way more for the Library of Babel.

What do you think? What would you need to make this work for you?

(Comments enabled. I’ll shut ‘em down at the end of the week. Be nice.)

The city is a hypertext

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 12, 2010

Steve Jobs recently compared the shift from desktop to mobile computers to the shift from trucks to cars. You could maybe say something similar about the future of physical books compared to other kinds of media. The older forms don’t go away, but they become more specialized, and the relationships between them become different, as our lifestyles change.

Again. You could argue that the arguments we have about the cognitive effect of reading for the web are largely a replay of the upheaval surrounding mass urbanization at the turn of the century. Continuing our Metropolis theme, pull up Georg Simmel’s 1903 essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” [PDF]. (Simmel’s German word is “Grosstadt,” which literally means “big city”; Lang deliberately used the slightly stranger, Greek-derived word to make his city feel different.) Simmel saw big cities as a tremendous economic and informational engine that fundamentally transformed human personality:

Lasting impressions, the slightness in their differences, the habituated regularity of their course and contrasts between them, consume, so to speak, less mental energy than the rapid telescoping of changing images, pronounced differences within what is grasped at a single glance, and the unexpectedness of violent stimuli. To the extent that the metropolis creates these psychological conditions - with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life - it creates in the sensory foundations of mental life, and in the degree of awareness necessitated by our organization as creatures dependent on differences, a deep contrast with the slower, more habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythm of the sensory-mental phase of small town and rural existence.

And cognitive scientists have actually begun empirically verifying Simmel’s armchair psychology. And whenever I read anything about the web rewiring our brains, foretelling immanent disaster, I’ve always thought, geez, people — we live in cities! Our species has evolved to survive in every climate and environment on dry land. Our brains can handle it!

But I thought of this again this morning when a 2008 Wilson Quarterly article about planner/engineer Hans Monderman, titled “The Traffic Guru,” popped up in my Twitter feed. (I can’t even remember where it came from. Who knows why older writing just begins to recirculate again? Without warning, it speaks to us more, or differently.)

The idea that made Monderman, who died of cancer in January at the age of 62, most famous is that traditional traffic safety infrastructure—warning signs, traffic lights, metal railings, curbs, painted lines, speed bumps, and so on—is not only often unnecessary, but can endanger those it is meant to protect…

Traffic engineers, in Monderman’s view, helped to rewrite [towns] with their signs and other devices. “In the past in our villages,” Monderman said, “you could read the street in the village as a good book.” Signs advertising a school crossing were unnecessary, because the presence of a school and children was obvious. “When you removed all the things that made people know where they were, what they were a part of, and when you changed it into a uniform world,” he argued, “then you have to explain things.”

In other words, information overload, and the substitution of knowledge for wisdom. Sound familiar?

I’ll just say I remain unconvinced. We’ve largely gotten rid of pop-up ads, flashing banners, and the <blink> tag on the web. I’m sure can trim back some of the extra text and lights in our towns and cities. We’re versatile creatures. Just give us time. Meanwhile, let’s read some more Simmel:

[These changes] reveal themselves as one of those great historical structures in which conflicting life-embracing currents find themselves with equal legitimacy. Because of this, however, regardless of whether we are sympathetic or antipathetic with their individual expressions, they transcend the sphere in which a judge-like attitude on our part is appropriate. To the extent that such forces have been integrated, with the fleeting existence of a single cell, into the root as well as the crown of the totality of historical life to which we belong - it is our task not to complain or to condone but only to understand.

On reading (or not). “Since when did

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 19, 2005

On reading (or not). “Since when did a regular quota of suitably serious reading matter become obligatory?”

Summer reading list from Edge

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 14, 2005

Summer reading list from Edge. I think I would have rather seen a list of recommendations from Edge members rather than their books. Gee, Dawkins writing on evolution? Didn’t see that coming…

Steve Leveen suggests that people stop finishing

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2005

Steve Leveen suggests that people stop finishing books they aren’t enjoying. Compares books to wine, says that we should “taste” a variety of books and only “drink” the ones we really like.

Poetry takes more brain power to read than prose

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 07, 2005

Poetry takes more brain power to read than prose. “Subjects were found to read poems slowly, concentrating and re-reading individual lines more than they did with prose.”