In one way, a book is a remarkably crude, blunt tool.
Its component parts are rudimentary and primitive. It consists of words, and these words don’t do anything other than sit there and beg to be read. An author constantly asks her readers to picture this, imagine that. Books are needy.
Looked at against richer media, it’s kind of amazing that books still exist at all. They don’t move. They can’t carry a tune. They’re simply not capable of the kind of visual beauty that we can get elsewhere in the media ecosystem. They require an investment of time and active attention that no other media form demands, and that is supported nowhere else in our daily lives.
In a way, they’re a bit like the coelacanth — a holdover technology from a much earlier era, a strange evolutionary dead-end that somehow never died.
The thing about books, though, is that it’s not their primitive components that make them work. It’s the imagination of the reader, and that is an incredibly potent—and timeless—media tool. The power of a book comes from the act of reading it.
So the question of the future of books is really a question about the future of the imagination.
If we start from that premise, I believe there are two questions that naturally follow:
1) Assuming that the book itself is an evolving technology, however crude, how can we use technology to not only preserve, but amplify its power as an engine of the imagination?
2) What do we want the act of imagination that we call “reading” to look like and feel like in the future?
I don’t think either question has a right or wrong answer. But I think they’re both essential questions for any writer, or any serious reader, for that matter, to consider.
As to the first question, I have some dogmatic sentiments about what is and isn’t an appropriate use of technologies to augment the act of reading. I think everything else I believe flows from a personal core philosophy that reading is an act that requires focused attention. I also consider this question primarily as a storyteller, and I realize that not all books exist to tell a story. But as a storyteller, I believe that anything that distracts from the primary act of tracking words and their meanings puts distance between reader and material and disrupts the engine of imagination.
So how do we add to the experience of reading without breaking the engine? Again, I don’t think there’s a correct answer, but I believe that’s the right question for authors to ask. I can think of some interesting case studies that might point the way towards a future I would be excited about.
Robin Sloan’s “The Truth About the East Wind” (2010) is a short story with a subtle audio track, with cues triggered by scrolling down the length of the single-page text. About halfway through the story, a sound effect begins—a whistling wind—so quiet as to be imperceptible. As the reader keeps scrolling, the wind grows in volume until, by the end, it’s a howling squall (or that’s how I remember it, anyway).
What’s cool about “East Wind” is that, as a reader, you don’t need to do anything other than read, and as a consequence of that one act, the text comes alive in a way that dawns on you only gradually.
The interplay of text and image in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2008) is an elegant example of design and illustration that exists seamlessly around and among the text of the story. Dave McKean’s illustrations lead the reader from one page to the next—they follow the momentum of the reader’s eye so that processing an image is something that happens in parallel with reading the text that surrounds it.
If I had to distill any sort of guiding design principle from these examples, I think it would be the notion that as the book evolves, the media that augments it should function in parallel to the text, and not at oblique angles and tangents. A book becomes a deeper collaboration between author and experience designer. And it demands a deft touch from both.
If that’s the case, then the act of reading doesn’t actually change much. It’s still a focused, directed act, and it still requires the reader to call on her imagination. And maybe, just maybe, something even richer will emerge.
Reading a book might become an experience in itself.
As a writer, I think the greatest possible accomplishment is that your readers will have a memory of the act of reading your work, and not just of the content. There’s a future where our power to create texts that achieve this effect is even greater. That’s the one I want to see.