In his gem “So Many Books,” Gabriel Zaid characterized Socrates’ criticism of writing thus:
Conversation depends on those who take part in it: who they are, what they know, what interests them, what they’ve just said. In contrast, books are unfeeling monologues. They ignore the circumstances in which they’re read. They repeat the same things over and over, without taking the reader into account. They pay no heed to his questions or responses.
The printed book seems to offer only the opportunity for that quiet conversation you have with the author in your head/ You might imagine other readers of the book sharing your sentiments, but there is really no easy way to know.
Of course a book is an object of culture. For example, if you want to share a reading experience you can join a book club or talk about it with a friend. Both of these social interactions have proven very effective in determining the popularity of a book. Yet this type of conversation is constrained by geography, and if no one nearby shares your particular interest in a book, it’s back to that silent dialogue in your mind.
What Socrates couldn’t have imagined was how the Internet, wireless communication and e-paper could bring true conversation to the written word. Suddenly, the prospect of printed books that are interactive and connected to the rest of the world opens up a different kind of shared reading experience. Every page of the book becomes a web page. Every word, sentence and paragraph can become a link to a community of readers with simlar interests to your own. Now the book is a mobile platform. Sharing what you read can transcend the limits of geography and time.
What would this new experience look like? Here are some thoughts about two key ingredients.
Layering – Every book would feature multiple layers. The substrate is the book text, illustrations and photos such as we have today. Readers can add virtual layers to this substrate. Floating above the substrate is an embedded application layer for things like search, word lookup, communications and so on. A third layer might be reserved for the reader’s own annotations, which could be turned on or off (so as not to annoy others who might want to read the book in its pristine form). Another layer could belong to the author, containing background material similar to the bonus features that come on many DVDs. Publishers could have a layer to let readers know about book signings, readings and author appearances. But the most interesting layer could be a social or conversation layer, where the reader could view other individuals’ reactions to various passages in the book and share their own.
Connection – The book could be connected to social networks to which the reader belonged whose members might share similar interests. Publishers could even provide a centralized service that helped readers connect with their fellow book travelers. Readers could use text or visual tagging to express their reactions to various passages in the book and then share theese through widgets. This could add a dimension of community to the book. It would be easy to excerpt and share with others virtually. You could even have a twitter function that would allow readers to follow each others progress through the book.
Technology offers the potential to bring the conversation to the book in a very literal sense. As Zaid observed:
With few exceptions, the world of the book has no connection to massive and undifferentiated markets; it relies instead on segmented clienteles, specialized niches and members of different clubs of enthusiasts. But not all publishers, booksellers and librarians see the importance of giving shape to these clubs; of making lists of potential readers; of welcoming and facilitating direct contact; of taking into account the tastes and opinions of the participants; of organizing coherent and lively conversations. The success that many small and medium size houses have had along these lines confirms the idea that organizing the world of books is like organizing a conversation.
As the book expands to become a connected, interactive, mobile device, we will need to define a new aesthetic for the medium of the printed word. We will need to see it not just as a conversation starter, but as the instrument of conversation itself. Now that’s worth having a conversation about.