Future “books” and future “reading”

I heard an excellent radio program about the future of the book a few days ago. Some of the points raised in the context of digital books align with the future of the content web and other channels. Here’s my mashup.

Future “books” will redefine the “reading” experience by :

  1. letting the author augment their content with structure and linkages
  2. letting the reader augment the content with their own annotations
  3. letting external sources augment the content with their own commentary

Let’s talk about these, taking as an example “Lord of The Rings” for fiction, or a biography of Henry Kissinger for non-fiction.

First, content augmentation by the author. Currently the author provides ample structure through plot lines as characters and events unfold. Some of these represent relationships in physical space-time, others reflect unfolding in social and psychological spaces. Regardless, in a complex book, we sometimes have to work hard at keeping all the events, players, and locations straight. When reading a physical book, we might keep a thumb in the map, chronology, and dramatis personae, but soon run out of thumbs. In digital books, the same artefacts, suitably architected, could be integrated into the content; they could even provide alternative visualizations of the entire book’s content. Different readers would have different preferences for using these tools. Some would trust the author’s aesthetic and follow along for the ride, agreeing to work hard when the author wanted them to; others might use the tools as a cross reference and crutch; yet others might rely on the alternative visualizations as their primary access to the material.

Second, content augmentation by the reader. Making annotations and margin notes is straightforward enough, but this is taking a book-centric point of view. A more user centric point of view might ask why the user is reading a book, and allow the annotations to be semantically tagged with categories meaningful to the user, for example “Going On A Quest”. And of course, the reader might be reading several books to support their goals, so would want the annotations to be structured consistently across all books, but aggregated outside of any particular book.

Third, content augmentation by external sources. Right now I often read a book with Google at the ready, but this is a hit-or-miss proposition. I know there are resources out there, and I would appreciate it, even pay for it, if someone had curated some good resources for me. We could imagine an ebook offered with options for plugins of curated study notes, literary criticism or historical context, written by an authorities and cross linked to the book.

So those are the three takeaways from the radio program. By the time we have done all these things, the book will have acquired additional structure, content and interaction. The book business will have new players and institutions.

I really have to sympathize with one of the speakers in the radio program. They were asked why they kept talking about the “Future of the Book” when it would feel and behave nothing like a book. The somewhat plaintiff answer was, “we don’t have a name for it yet”. But we will one day. Ten years from now, we will have new vocabularies and patterns for this sort of thing.  I look forward to helping us get there.

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