Feiler Faster

Newsweek has a fascinating cover story this week on the future of the book, timed to coincide with the newest e-reader book silver bullet by Amazon. The retailer is releasing Kindle, which it hopes will do what all the previous e-readers have not done: sell. Here’s Newsweek, by contrast, describing the perfect reading device: “It is a more reliable storage device than a hard disk drive, and it sports a killer user interface. (No instruction manual or “For Dummies” guide needed.) And, it is instant-on and requires no batteries. Many people think it is so perfect an invention that it can’t be improved upon, and react with indignation at any implication to the contrary.” That object, of course, is the book.
Later, the article returns to this theme:

“There’s 550 years of technological development in the book, and it’s all designed to work with the four to five inches from the front of the eye to the part of the brain that does the processing [of the symbols on the page],” says Hill, a boisterous man who wears a kilt to a seafood restaurant in Seattle where he stages an impromptu lecture on his theory. “This is a high-resolution scanning machine,” he says, pointing to the front of his head. “It scans five targets a second, and moves between targets in only 20 milliseconds. And it does this repeatedly for hours and hours and hours.” He outlines the centuries-long process of optimizing the book to accommodate this physiological marvel: the form factor, leading, fonts, justification … “We have to take the same care for the screen as we’ve taken for print.”

But after singing the praises of old-fashioned books, the article moves into much more interesting territory, namely how books will cease being merely objects between covers.

Google’s people have thought about how this connectivity could actually affect how people read. Adam Smith, product director for Book Search, says the process is all about “getting rid of the idea that a book is a [closed] container.” One of his colleagues, Dan Lansing, describes how it might work: “Say you are trying to learn more about the Middle East, and you start reading a book, which claims that something happened in a particular event in Lebanon in ’81, where the author was using his view on what happened. But actually his view is not what [really] happened. There’s newspaper clippings on the event, there are other people who have written about it who disagree with him, there are other perspectives. The fact that all of that is at your fingertips and you can connect it together completely changes the way you do scholarship, or deep investigation of a subject. You’ll be able to get all the world’s information, all the books that have been published, all the world’s libraries.”
Jim Gerber, Google’s content-partnerships director, suggests that it might be an interesting idea, for example, for someone on the liberal side of the fence to annotate an Ann Coulter book, providing refuting links for every contention that the critic thought was an inaccurate representation. That commentary, perhaps bolstered and updated by anyone who wants to chime in, could be woven into the book itself, if you chose to include it. (This would probably make Ann Coulter very happy, because you’d need to buy her book in order to view the litany of objections.)

This, to me, is very exciting. One of the things I have written about is that I think one problem the Bible has in contemporary life is that people think of it as this object, with black covers, and gilt-edged pages. One result of my travels is that I don’t think of it as a book anymore. I think of it first as a map — with most of its actions occurring in the Fertile Crescent comprised of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Promised Land in between. I think of it next as a great adventure. And I think of it finally as a series of stories, most of which are incomplete, with lots of blank spaces and room for commentary. That’s one primary reason why the Bible has survived — anybody can make his or her own interpretation. I think the idea that these new e-readers will allow people more easily to add their own commentaries, and share them with others, will help the The Book survive even longer.
And, by extension, help all books do the same.