Monday, September 15, 2008

The End?

Watch out: it's coming.

Apparently new media as a literary apocalypse sells papers. Here are some of this weekend's literary headlines:

The Independent: "Can intelligent literature survive in the digital age?" and "The next chapter: Who'll be the bestsellers of tomorrow?"

The New York Times: "Don’t Buy That Textbook, Download It Free."

New York Magazine: "The End."

I'm feeling a little exasperated by all this negative press. Books are really, really great. No one contests this. There is not some mortal enemy of The Book that's out to get it. Steve Jobs is not out to destroy music. Why would people who choose to spend years of their lives adding digital enhancements to books feel anything but affection for them?

Dear Media, Can we please get a new angle on the future of digital interaction? XOXO, Gossip Girl.

There is a little good word of mouth out there: Try MediaLoper's "Reconsidering the Future of Ebooks," or my personal favorite, "A unified field theory of publishing in the networked era."

All right. I've just started a job in new media, and I know I'm biased. But whenever someone hears I'm interested in eBooks, they take whatever book I'm holding in my hand and say, "But isn't this great? You won't have this on a computer screen." Sometimes they sniff it.

I know the book smells good. I bought it. In fact, I've bought hundreds. Probably thousands. I use them as room decorations and gifts. I line my bedframe and desk with piles of them. I love the way they smell, I love the way they feel, and I love nothing more than looking up a good word I find in one of them. It just so happens that the most convenient and affordable way to look up said word is in the OED online.

So we've reached a stage where we need to think about what technology can do to assist us in our reading. It's not taking books away from us. It's linking us to other books, to dictionaries, to encyclopedias, to Wikipedias, and most importantly, to other readers.

And yes, it's easier to start with textbooks, because students will be progressive and savvy enough to begin interacting with books outside of the classroom. Plus they're not fiction. Everyone gets defensive of fiction. While books hold a certain romance, few people romanticize falling asleep beside their microeconomic books. But because so few of us can rationalize our need for fiction in a concise manner, we speak of it as though it is on the verge of extinction.

If you need to react to threats, try the economy, creationism, or Sarah Palin.

Ebooks are beautiful too. The publishing industry just needs to figure out how to make them pleasurable.

I'm sure no one thought that TV and film would be taken seriously when they began to "threaten" the radio. But don't we look at these things as art forms in our modern era? They're not terrible because we don't understand them.

There are possibilities here, and I'd like readers to discuss them. What do you want from networked books? Besides comment bars, video, audio, and graphics? What can you get from an interactive and social format that you can't get on the page?

You don't have to read this stuff on a screen, especially not with the current eReaders available to you. You can read on paper and interact with the text later, at least to try it out. Do I sound like a mom coaxing you to try a food you're determined to hate? Fine. But we're not getting anywhere in the reading community by resisting change.

Try it. Just a byte. And tell me what you think about it.

No comments: