incredible shrinking book 02.02.2005, 6:05 PM
posted by ben vershbow
A couple morsels today on textually.org lending credence to our theory that cellphones/PDAs are the incubation niche for the eventual widespread adoption of ebooks. One on fashionable new casings Nokia is bringing out for mobile devices (re Kim's leather-bound fantasy ebook). Another on plans by Chinese tech giant Lenovo to embed "mobile book software technology" into phones, allowing users to read fully illustrated books, as well as watch movies, listen to audio, play video games, and browse periodicals. Mobile phones are emerging, at least in China, as the ultimate mass-consumer media processor - affordable and eminently portable. And each year, notebook computers become lighter, sleeker, and easier to tote around. Are they just shrinking into palm pilots? How much serious work can you get done on a palm pilot?
Gary Frost on February 2, 2005 10:17 PM:
Thanks for the excellent update on cellphones/PDAs as "the incubation niche for the eventual widespread adoption of ebooks". Looks like the hand held reading device does not have to mimic paper page turning (as impossible as it would be).
Regarding reading devices, why are ebook displays getting smaller while TV displays are getting larger? Visual displays seem to exceed handheld distance readily and they frequently approach a full field of vision. Running textual displays are better adapted to hand held distance as a bionic legacy of hand held inspection and manipulative discovery. This is probably why we don't have book drive-in projection.
Taken together the electronic displays vary greatly in size. By contrast, paper book displays have a rather narrow range of scale and most are about the same size. Again, this is probably deeply embedded. The projectile predation behavior of the hominids, which engendered our unique asymmetrical neural development, was based on an optimal, throw rock. That rock, carefully selected, carefully aimed and expertly tossed with a hope of stunning its target, is the precursor of the book. The book is actually millions of years old.
Most cell phones are not that old. But they must still be amenable to handheld inspection and manipulative discovery. They approximate a throw rock in size and weight and this is a reason why we are familiar with them. When text display is observed we tend to move them away from the face to a point of hand held focus. When they make a sound we tend to hold them close to an ear.
Note that the old dial telephone with a separate rotary keyboard and sound receiver provided the simultaneous use of audio and text. This discovery has evidentially been lost.
dave munger on February 3, 2005 12:13 PM:
I don't think books are the size they are because of some embedded circuitry in our brains. They are the biggest size they can be and still be convenient to hold and carry around. The "embedded" feature is the size and strength of our hands.
You might be right when it comes to line-length: hence the use of columns in newspapers and dictionaries.
ben vershbow on February 4, 2005 5:30 PM:
I'm also skeptical of any deterministic explanation, though the throw rock analogy is very powerful. There are a number of considerations that determine the size of a book.. Is it meant to be easily carried? In a backpack, like a textbook? In a handbag, like a paperback? In a pocket, Iike a pamphlet, chap book, or manifesto? Or is it meant to be sedentary? or unwieldy and difficult to steal, like a phonebook, encyclopedia, or torah scroll? Is it meant to sit flat on a table, tilted on a lectern, or upright on a shelf?
If we consider books as a kind of tool, then it's reasonable to draw direct correlations between function and size. Many books are written in order to persuade, either to accept a proposition, or simply to buy the book (and here the book's cover should be taken into account). For these books, the image of the throw rock is suggestive - "carefully selected, carefully aimed and expertly tossed with a hope of stunning its target." But this is only one type of persuasion, reminiscent of newspapers, magazines, and popular paperbacks - light, handy, and aimed at a moving target.. projectile books. There are also books of much less convenient dimensions that nonetheless persuade us - magnetic books, drawing us to them by dint of authority or necessity. The OED, Black's Law Dictionary, an atlas, a book of Michaelangelo's drawings. With these, the reader adapts to the book's unusual scale. But with digital texts, this sort of book begins to take on a different character - less monolithic and more architectural.
We've observed this explosion of new reading practices in the domain of mobile devices.. I think these are of the hand rock variety - moving targets firing volley upon volley at other moving targets. The notebook computer is more a descendant of the desk or workbench - it is a place where things are made, manipulated and multiplied. Of course, it is also a place for reading, watching, and listening. When shall the two meet? It seems the hand rock and the desk are on a collision course. Combine the two and you'll probably end up with something more or less the size of a conventional paperback book. But factor in new innovations like electronic paper (which could eventually mean screens and keyboards that you unroll or unfold - link1, link2, link3) or eye-tracking (which eliminates the need of hands - link1, link2) and maybe it will take on a totally different form, more like a visor or goggles. Could this ease the anxiety felt by most skeptics of the electronic book: that it cannot be comfortably taken into bed?
It's useful (and fun) to talk about the evolving nature of the reading device, but ultimately we can't separate it from the reading matter. I think of the print book as much more than a container. It is a certain kind of hardware for which a certain kind of software has been written and developed. Most of the discussion today concerns making this older software readable on new hardware. We'd all like Tolstoy to live comfortably on the screen, but I'm more curious about new kinds of literature that must be read on a screen, with an Internet connection. We live in a transitional moment and so are constantly trying to think in two ways at once. And I worry.. will I be able to understand these new forms when I see them?