paperback ebook 02.23.2005, 9:51 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Booktopia, a Korean ebook developer, is introducing a 29-title series for mobile users based on popular movie scenarios (article), including the recent Cannes hit Old Boy (thanks, textually.org). The books act as supplements to the films, with omitted material and glimpses behind-the-scenes, sort of like special features on a DVD (though it appears that they will be text-only). They also seem to riff on that weird tie-in genre of books adapted from the screen (I've always wondered who reads those books..).
So are phones the electronic book in embryo? If you are looking for innovation in form, what's happening on cell phones and mobile devices is far more interesting than what you'll find in the area of conventional "ebooks," which generally are the kind of pdf nightmare Dan decribes in his post yesterday. But so far, these kinds of mobile books, or mbooks, are to literature what ring tones are to music. The cell phone has become a kind of cud for the distracted brain to chew - I can't count how many people I see on the subway or waiting in lines simply fiddling with their phone settings. What seems to be developing on cell phones is a new kind of ephemera descended from the pamphlet, flyer, or broadsheet, which will be tightly interwoven with advertising (these Korean movie tie-ins do leg work for the actual films, just as the new 24 spinoff offered on Verizon plugs the Fox television series). But what about actual books? Serious reading to counterbalance all the fluff. Portable devices like phones and palm pilots lend themselves to the serial model. Their diminutive size makes them better suited to smaller chunks of material, and their access to networks allows them to constantly grab new chunks. But I don't see why quality has to be sacrificed. Perhaps, with time, the tradition of serialized narrative will be reinvented in meaningful ways. Many of Dickens's novels were published and written serially, and he was able to modulate the course of his writing according to reader response and sales. Digital content delivery over cell phones and the web could employ the same fluidity, delivering the book as it is becoming, and creating whole communities of readers on the web (see earlier post elegant map hack). An interesting prospect for writers as well as readers.
These literary experiments on the tiny screen are probably not trivial, even though the content may be. They seem to be saying "hurry up" to our more sophisticated but unwieldy reading devices like laptops and tablets. We need a kind of paperback ebook, in between a laptop and a smartphone - cheap and easy to tote. If I can comfortably read on this device in a crowded subway, then we might finally have something as handy as a paper book, conducive to any kind of content, with all the affordances of computers and the web. And ideally... I can write on it with a stylus, or on a keyboard that it projects on a tabletop, and I can dock it at a more powerful workstation in my office. I can plug in headphones or speakers and explore my music library, or surf satellite radio. I can watch a film that I made, or one that I downloaded, or I can flip through my photo album. If I'm lost, I can get a map with pictures of the place I'm trying to find. And at night, I can curl up with it in bed, reading by the light of its built-in candle. I may even have glasses I can plug in and read the book without hands, or look at images in 3-D like on a stereopticon. (Kim, I think I may have my fantasy ebook) Nothing could ever truly replace paper books for me, but a pan-media tablet - an everything device - might just become my everyday companion.
gary frost on February 24, 2005 7:19 PM:
The cell phone may prove the better ebook because it is not based on the book model. Electronic book simulations will always be compared (to their disadvantage) with the paper book. Also the phone reading device/ebook avoids reference to book size. Reading is a behavior that is not confined to arm length focus. A cell phone is held to the ear and reads from towers. The cell phone also best compiles the three classic parent reading modes of listening/watching, writing and print. Why confine that experience to a typical screen monitor? Finally, the future of the cell phone is more functionally diversified than the future of the book, and people remember to take their cell phone with them. These are some reasons why the cell phone is a better ebook.
But being an ebook is not everything. For example, the cell phone is not a book. The content appears and disappears like magic. Books, on the other hand, accumulate. This is more important than it sounds. Not only does accumulation enable reliable transmission of works across time and cultures, but it enables arrays, assemblies and juxtapositionings of conceptual works. Accumulated books literally enable scholarship because the accumulation enables the creation of dynamic new meanings between persistent texts. Try that with a cell phone. Try that with any conceivable ebook.
ben vershbow on February 25, 2005 6:06 PM:
Then shouldn't the goal be to develop persistent electronic texts? One of the institute's main objectives is to create tools that will do this well. They will to some extent simulate paper books, much as personal computers simulate typewriters, but they will not be limited to the reading behaviors learned in a paper world. They will be situated in the larger connectivity of the web and will be mutable or expandable, as desired.
As future generations move further away from paper, older ways of reading may diminish or vanish altogether. I would not know how to live in such a world, but then, I will probably not be alive when it arrives. Of course, politics, wars, and nature could all conspire to alter our course. The vulnerability of networks could prove such that cultures splinter into fortified strongholds. Perhaps paper will win in the end as the most trustworthy and reliable agent.