Digital Books as Physical Props

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The Physical Properties of Books

The affordances of a physical book position the book in your life in a way that goes beyond the simple act of reading. To a buy a physical book, you might go to a used bookstore. You wander the aisles, noticing different titles. If something catches your eye, you can pick it up and flip through the pages. You might notice that the book is heavy, or that the pages look worn. The book has a distinct smell.

As you read a physical book, you leave traces in the book. You underline passages that are particularly meaningful. You fold the corners of pages down to mark your place. The book takes up space in your house. It moves from your coffee table to your nightstand to your bookshelf.

When people come to visit you, they see the book and comment on it. You lend it to a friend who’s always wanted to read it, but hasn’t had the chance. It’s a while before you get the book back, and there are times where you wonder if she’ll ever return it. When she finally does, there’s a distinct coffee stain about a third of the way through. Eventually, you give that particular book away. You never read it any more, and so it no longer seems to have a place on your bookshelf.

If reading a book is a type of performance, the book itself is a prop. The acts of buying, interpreting, displaying, and sharing the book are informed in part by the ability to interact with the book in a physical way.

Making Digital Books More Physical

As books become digitized, the experience of books as physical objects gets lost. When you buy a digital book, you don’t think about how heavy the book is or how it smells. It doesn’t take up physical space in your house, and visitors can’t serendipitously notice and comment on it. It doesn’t show wear. You can’t physically give it to someone, with or without the expectation of getting it back.

What do we lose in the transformation to the digital medium, and what should we think about reincorporating into digital books?

The physical properties of the book are missing. We can produce digital books that show use—how many people have made annotations, where they have made bookmarks—but not wear. There is no information about the condition of the book, how valued the book was. There aren’t physical properties such as weight or smell to link to the experience of reading the book. Building digital books that leave physical traces—e-readers that release smells or have touchscreens that feel differently based on the path of the book—would be one way of preserving the book’s physical properties.

The digital book lacks a physical presence. It can be displayed as part of your digital identity, but does not take up physical space in a way that has real-world significance. Having e-readers that can project images in your physical environment, displaying phantom book covers on your coffee table or bookshelf, would be a way of maintaining the ability to create a physical presence for your possessions.

Finally, the digital book lacks the same sense of ownership as a physical book. It is possible for multiple people to buy, read, and share the exact same copy of a digital book. Each physical book, while having the same text, has unique properties that reflect its journey through the world. It would be interesting to explore how to create multiple copies of a digital book that have the same core content but reflect the unique properties of each instance—who has bought it, who they have discussed the book with, and how valued the book is in its reader’s collection.

While the use of digital books as physical props is technologically feasible, the final question is whether it is necessary. What aspects of the physical affordances of books add value to the experience of reading them, and which ones will simply become artifacts of the past?

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