Beyond the Book?

For as long as I can remember I’ve been enraptured by the written word.

This is almost literally true. My second earliest clear memory is of sitting on the floor of our tiny porch, with my mother teaching me to read with a small chalkboard. As a child I would spend every penny I could muster on books, at least half of any given birthday or Xmas lode was books, and I would be unable to walk by a bookshop or library, or any shop with a rack of books for that matter, without calling in for a comprehensive browse.

I probably overly romanticised books to a point. My school forced me to take English literature at ‘O’ level, a subject I roundly despised for a number of reasons. Amongst other things I was horrified that we were expected to make notes by writing in the margins of the books themselves. And to this day I get irritated when I see someone turn down a corner of a page.

A love of bookshops carried over well into adult life. And then something odd happened – I discovered Amazon, and have hardly been in a book shop since.

I bought more books than ever of course. Amazon makes it all too easy to do so.

But the number and weight of books I used to take on holiday with me were a minor problem, and a few years ago I solved that problem with an e-reader. And a second odd thing happened. I’ve hardly bought a paper book since.

So that earlier romanticism clearly had limits. Bookshops were just a means to an end, and it turns out that I didn’t really give a stuff about the tactile qualities of treeware. It was, and always had been, about the content.  In a sense both high street bookshops and paper books have become for me, if not exactly obsolete, then at least revealed to be more limited than I’d thought. More recently, I’m beginning to wonder if the same thing can be said about books themselves.

Books are a one-way conversation, and that’s a shame. Questions often arise naturally while reading, and it would be nice to be able to raise them at the time and, especially, in context. That means that switching over to Google is often a poor way of tackling the problem. For whatever reason, this is for me becoming an increasingly noticeable defect.

I was recently reading Seth Lloyd’s ‘Programming the Universe’. The author tackles a difficult task – trying to explain quantum computing and the information perspective on fundamental physics – and in general does a poor job of it. One of the reasons for this is that he makes obvious jumps in his chains of explanation, and as a consequence it’s impossible to construct a satisfactory understanding, even allowing for the weirdness of the subject matter. So it was ultimately a bad read. On the other hand, if I’d been able to plug those gaps as I went along…

We seem to be in the early days of exploiting the potential of ebooks to be much more than just electronic versions of the paper book format (much as, in the early days of the web, business websites were little more than electronic brochures). Efforts seem to be concentrated on the potential for multi-media augmentation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful though if developments in context-sensitive, semantic search and AI could turn a book into a two way conversation? Maybe ‘books’ as we know them today would become just another quaint anachronism.

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