Digital Books as Physical Props


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?

Aggregating Audiences Around the Book


1993: I am a freshman in high school, a newly avid reader just discovering a world of books. I haunt the local used books stores looking for titles by my favorite authors and discovering new ones to try. This is a solitary pleasure until one day, visiting a friend, I see some of my beloved books on his shelf. Soon we are trading books, haunting the same bookstores, by chance having become a tiny, two-person audience for our favorite authors.

Most cultural forms aggregate their audience into a common physical space. For example, films and theater bring people together into a viewing space. Art is typically viewed in common spaces in the company of others. Music is often consumed via a live performance, in a concert setting.

Some rights reserved by xJason.Rogersx

Interestingly, while we now increasingly have de-aggregated the audience for these other cultural forms—thanks to an explosion in technology that has allowed for sophisticated theater and stereo systems to be had at a relatively affordable price in the comfort of our homes—books are moving in the other direction. Long a form consumed in a solitary fashion, books are now aggregating their audiences. But this isn’t entirely new. How have books and stories sometimes aggregated an audience? – In pre-book times, stories were an oral tradition, with an audience of listeners. – Following the advent of a written tradition, scholars discussed important texts in many eras through history, adding and sharing commentaries and marginalia. These were a feature of scholarship in Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages and were important to the rediscovery of Classical works by the humanists during the Renaissance (Greenblatt 2011). – Growing out of a salon tradition developed in Europe during the Renaissance, authors would read from their work to small groups. – This tradition of public readings has become a staple in bookstores and certain academic settings, and have evolved in some places to become almost a performance art, including readings in public places and marathon readings of long books. [youtube youtubeurl=”Le0pLSFLkkQ” ][/youtube]

Now, the advent of technology has enabled the aggregation of audience around books like never before. Social networks and online communities have made it trivial for fans of certain books and authors to form ad hoc (or even “official”) communities around the work they care about. A book may have a large distributed  but connected “audience” creating a social reading experience that can manifest in a variety of ways, including:

Some rights reserved by Technipages

– Having easy access to the commentary of others, aggregated and depersonalized as in “most highlighted passages” keyword tagging and other crowdsourcing of metadata. – The proliferation of online communities where vigorous books discussions can occur over email listservs, on message boards, in Facebook groups, in the comment sections of blog posts, and even on Twitter. – There have long been publications writing about and offering critiques of books in a one-to-many fashion, but many of those same publications, now online, have tools like comment sections that allow their readers to congregate and join the discussion. – The creation and sharing and swapping of fanfiction (which interestingly is a phenomenon hardly limited to the world of books, with writers commonly riffing on movies, TV shows, and even real-world events and people.)

There is great potential in how publishers and book communities can continue to look for ways to use technology to aggregate audiences around books. What may be missing is an open-source venue to facilitate and house these communities. It should be simple for readers to easily find and interact with the aura of information and reaction that may surround any book. Each book has the potential to be a mini-community of its own.

Performing the Book


As a scholar, I’ve long been inspired by Julio Cortazar’s comments that great writing is like Jazz—improvised, in the moment or “the take” (Tebeau 2011). The best public history and digital humanities, I’ve argued, are performative, like Cortazar’s best writing—like the best books.

Of course, books are performative—written, read, engaged—but that quality is rarely discussed when we mull the future of the book, with our focus being mostly on form, publishing, and preservation. As digital technologies have exploded publishing, they’re allowing us to recognize (once again) the performative aspects of the book as a knowledge system.

Digital technology, especially the emergence of mobile technologies and cloud computing, mean that books can now be performed—produced, experienced, and engaged—more fluidly and in more places. Of course, we could always read and annotate our dog-eared edition of Ulysses while walking the streets of Dublin, drinking in a local pub. But, now we can “read” Ulysses hyper-textually in Dublin (or in a pub anywhere) with comments and annotation, as well as video, audio, and other media expressions. We can fully experience literature.

As digital innovation has democratized writing, it also now allows communities to not just experience literature, but also to produce it. This production occurs in multiple contexts, with producers building communities through open-source technologies that publish in a variety of fashions: aggregation, multimedia, micro-blogging, long-form journalism, and mash-up. The work has redefined narrative and storytelling, and built communities of professionals, experts, amateurs, and crowds. These communities not only engage story and narrative, they transform text through their engagement. This is conceptually apparent in crowdsourced projects, annotation, and social media sharing.

Additionally, the emergence of smartphones (and now tablets) has allowed (coupled with cloud computing) for new publishing forms to become part of and to engage the physical landscape. Indeed, locative media allows us to explore narrative and stories in place. The landscape becomes hypertextual because it allows us to connect a book—or, for that matter, multiple books, annotations, links, and media—to a particular geography, structure, and physical context. That landscape moves from the object of narrative to part of the text itself. It evokes space, identity, landscape; it helps us individually and collectively to remake “place.” Perhaps more importantly, for us, the book becomes a space of play, a play space, a place of itself.

In accentuating longstanding qualities of books—their fluidity and interactivity and portability—the digital has reemphasized books as performative. Digital knowledge systems and the future of publishing books demand that we engage the dynamism of books as living performances.

cross-posted at urbanhumanist

The Minigraph: The Future of the Monograph?

Books on a stone ledge

It has taken digital a lot longer than many had thought to provide a serious challenge to print, but it seems to me that we are now in a new moment in which digital texts enable screen-reading (if it is not an anachronism to still call it that) as a sustained practice. Here, I am thinking particularly of the way in which screen technologies, including the high-resolution “retina” displays common on iPhones, Kindle E Ink, etc., combined with much more sensitive typesetting design practices in relation to text, are producing long-form texts that are pleasurable to read on a screen-based medium and as e-books. This has happened most noticeably in magazine articles and longer newspaper features, but is beginning to drift over into well-designed reading apps that we find on our mobile devices, such as Pocket and the Reader function in Safari.

With this change, serious questions are being asked about our writing practices—especially in terms of the assumptions and affordances that are coded into software word-processors like Microsoft Word, which assumes and sometimes enforces a print mentality. Word wants you to print the documents you write, and this prescriptive behavior by the software encourages us to “check” our documents on a “real” paper form before committing to it—even if the final form is a PDF. The reason is that even the PDF is designed for printing, as anyone who has tried to read a PDF document on a digital screen will attest. But when the reading practices of screen media are sufficient, then many of the assumptions of screen writing can be jettisoned, especially the practice of writing for paper.

There is little doubt that writing and reading the screen is different from print (Berry 2012; Gold 2012). These differences are not just technical; they also involve forms of social practice, such as reading in public, passing around documents, sharing ideas, and so forth. They also include the kinds of social signaling that digital documents have been very poor at incorporating into their structures, such as the cover, the publisher, the author’s name, and the book’s unique design. Nonetheless, at the present phase of digital texts, it is in the typesetting and typography, combined with the social reading practices that take place, such as social sharing, marking, copying/pasting, and commenting, that make digital a viable way of creating and consuming textual works. In some ways, the social signaling of the cover artwork, etc. has been subsumed into social media such as Facebook and Twitter, but I think that it is only a matter of time before this is incorporated into mobile devices, since advanced screen technologies, especially an E Ink back cover, can be built for pennies.

To return to the texts themselves, the question of writing, of putting pen to paper, is on the cusp of radical change. The long thirty-year period of stable writing software created by the virtual monopoly that Microsoft gained over desktop computers is drawing to a close. From its initial introduction in 1983 on the Xenix system as Multi-Tool Word and renamed that year to the familiar Microsoft Word that we all know (and often hate) today, print has been the lodestar of word processor design.

As the next stage of digital text emerges, many of the textual apparatuses of print are migrating to the digital platform. As they do so, the advantages of new search and discovery practices make books extremely visible and usable again, through tools like Google Books (Dunleavy 2012). There is still a lot of experimentation in this space, and some problems still remain: for example, there is currently not a viable alternative to the “chunking” process of reading that print has taught us through pages and page numbering, nor is there a means of book marking that is as intuitive as the changing weight of the book as it moves through our hands, or the visual clues afforded through the page volume changing from unread to read as we turn the pages. However, this has been mitigated by turning away from the very long-form book- or monograph-length texts of around 80,000 words, to the moderate long-form, represented by the 15-40,000 word text which I want to call the minigraph.

By minigraph I am seeking to distinguish a specific length of text that is able to move beyond the limitations of the 6-8,000 word article, but avoids the chunking problem of reading lengthy digital texts. In other words, in its current stage of implementation, I think that digital long-form texts are most comfortable to read when they stay within this golden ratio of 15-40,000 words, broken into five or six chapters. The lack of chunking is still a problem without helpful “page” numbers, and I don’t think that paragraph numbering has provided a usable solution to this. However, the shortness of the text means that it is readable within a reasonable period of time, creating a de facto chunking at the level of the minigraph chapter (2,000 – 5,000 words). Indeed, the introduction of an algorithmic paging system that is device-independent would also be helpful, for example through a notion of “planes” which are analogous to pages but calculated in real-time.1 This would help sidestep the problem of fatigue in digital reading, apparent even in our retina/e-ink screen practices, but also creates works that are long enough to be satisfying to read and offer interesting discussion, digression and scholarly apparatus. Other publishers have already been experimenting with the form, such as Palgrave with its Pivot series, a new e-book format: “at 30,000 to 50,000 words, it’s longer than a journal article but shorter than a traditional monograph. The Palgrave Pivot, said Hazel Newton, head of digital publishing, ‘fills the space in the middle’” (Cassuto 2013). Indeed, Stanford University Press has also started “to release new material in the form of midlength e-books. ‘Stanford Briefs’ will run 20,000 to 40,000 words in length.” Cassuto calls Stanford’s format the “mini-monograph.”

How should one write a minigraph? It’s likely that Microsoft Word will algorithmically prescribe paper norms, which in academia tend to either 7,000-word articles or 70,000-word monographs. Here, I think Dieter (2013) is right to make links with the writing practices of Book Sprints as a connecting thread to new forms of publishing (Hyde 2013). The Book Sprint is a “genre of the ‘flash’ book, written under a short timeframe, to emerge as a contributor to debates, ideas and practices in contemporary culture…interventions that go well beyond a well-written blog-post or tweet, and give some substantive weight to a discussion or issue…within a range of 20-40,000 words” (Berry and Dieter 2012). This rapid and collaborative means of writing tends toward the creation of texts of an “appropriate” size for the digital medium. Book Sprints usually involve 4-8 writers, facilitated by another non-writing member. The output of each writer throughout the sprint conveniently maps onto the structure of minigraph chapters discussed earlier. For Dieter, the Book Sprint is conducive to new writing practices, and by extension new reading practices for network cultures, and therefore “formations that break from subjugation or blockages in pre-existing media and organizational workflows” (Dieter 2013). In this I think he is broadly correct; however, Book Sprints also produce texts that are conducive to reading and writing in a digital medium, especially in terms of word count.

Nick Montfort (2013) has suggested a new predominantly digital form of writing that enables different forms of scholarly communication, the technical report, which he argues “is as fast as a speeding blog, as detailed and structured as a journal article, and able to be tweeted, discussed, assessed, and used as much as any official publication can be. It is issued entirely without peer review.” Montfort, however, connects the technical report to the “grey literature” that is not usually considered part of scholarly publishing as such. Experiments like the “pamphlets” issued by the Stanford Literary Lab, and which Montford argues are technical reports in all but name, are between 10-15,000 words in length: slightly longer than a journal article and a little shorter than a minigraph.

However, a key difference is that neither the Book Sprint nor the technical report are peer-reviewed, although they might be “peer-to-peer reviewed” (see Cebula 2010; Fitzpatrick 2011). Rather, they are rapid production, sharing, and collaborative forms geared toward social media and intervention or technical documentation. In contrast, the minigraph would share with the other main scholarly outputs—the journal article and the monograph—the need to be peer-reviewed and produced at a high level of textual quality. This is where the minigraph points to new emergent affordances of the digital that enable the kinds of scholarly activity, such as presenting finished work, carefully annotated and referenced, through these nascent digital textual technologies. If these intuitions are right about the current state of digital technologies and their affordances for the writing and reading of scholarly work, then the minigraph might be the right structure and form for digital scholarship to augment the current ecosystem of the article, review, monograph, and so forth.

In some ways the minigraph is a much less radical suggestion than the multi-modal, all-singing, all-dancing digital object that many have been calling for. However, the minigraph, as conceptualized here, is still potentially deeply computational in form. We might describe the minigraph as a code-object. In this sense, the minigraph is able to contain programmable objects itself, in addition to its textual load, opening up many possibilities for interactive dimensions, like those suggested by the Computable Document Format (CDF) created by Wolfram.

The minigraph as described here does not, of course, exist as such, although its form is detectable in the documents produced by the Quip app, the dexy format, as “literate documentation,” or the Booktype software. It is manifestly not meant to be in the form of Google Docs/Drive, which is essentially traditional word-processing software in the cloud, and which ironically still revolves around a print metaphor. The minigraph is a technical imaginary for what digital scholarly writing might be. It remains to be coded into concrete software and manifested in the practices of scholarly writers and readers. Nonetheless, as a form of long-form text amenable to the mobile practices of readers today, the 15-40,000 word minigraph text could provide a key expressive scholarly form for the digital age.


[1] Minigraph chunks would be at 250-350 word intervals, roughly pages, and chapters of 2-5,000 words. There is no reason why the term “page” could not be used for these chunks, but perhaps “plane” is more appropriate in terms of chunks representing vertical “cuts” in the text at an appropriate frequency. So “plane 5” would be analogous to page 5, but mathematically calculable to approximately (300 x plane number) to give start word, and ((300 x plane number+1)-1) to give the end word of a particular plane. This would make the page both algorithmically calculable and therefore device-independent, but also suitable for scholarly referencing and usable user-friendly numbering throughout the text. As the planes are represented on screen by a digital, the numbering system would be comprehensible to users of printed texts, and would offer a simple transition from paper page-based numbering to algorithmic numbering. If the document was printed, the planes could be automatically reformatted to the page size, and hence further make the link between page and plane straightforward for the reader (who might never even realize the algorithmic source of the numbering system for plane chunks in a minigraph). Indeed, one might place the “plane resolution” within the minigraph text itself, in this case “300”, enabling different plane chunks to be used within different texts, and hence changing the way in which a plane is calculated on a book-by-book basis—very similar to page numbering. One might even have different plane resolutions within chapters in a book, enabling different chunks in different chapters or regions.