Centre for Internet & Society

Its future lies in a trans-media format that is ever evolving, writes Nishant Shah in an article which was published in the Indian Express on April 8, 2012.

If you are a true bibliophile, you have long transcended making mortal judgements about books, based on insignificant factors such as plot, narrative, or writing style. A true bibliophile is in love with the form of the book — the joy that comes from the rustle of a turned page, the euphoria of holding a book in your arms, the satisfaction that rises from watching a tottering stack of books. For hardcore bibliomaniacs, the love is at a sub-molecular level, so to speak, finding their happiness and content in shapes of fonts, thickness of paper, methods of binding, imprints and meta-data that tells its own story. For all these true lovers of books, their affection goes beyond the content of the book. They love the book as an artefact, as an object of desire. It is as if there was a “bookness” to the book that they deeply appreciate.

It is these people, along with many others, who mourn the death of the book in the age of digital mass production. With the advent of the e-book and the ubiquitous presence of reading devices, many have announced the death of the book. The ‘dead-tree book’, as it is often derisively described in many circles, is a thing of the past. As we live in worlds of increasing interface, the surfaces we read on, the way we read, and the forms that we read have undergone a dramatic reconfiguration. Swype-and-touch has replaced turn-and-fold and the book as we know it, is growing extinct.

Professor Bruno Latour — one of the first theorists and critics of digital technologies, large-scale networks, and new methods of knowledge production — from Sciences Po in Paris, during his recent visit to Bangalore, suggested that instead of accepting the imminent death of the book and mourning its demise, it might be more fruitful to look at its future. The digital, he says, does not question the idea of the book, but merely the form. This, for me, is a fascinating idea. We often recognise the book as a form — something that is written, something that is bound, or something that is found in libraries. If you were to define a book, you would talk about the different kinds, shapes, colours and sizes of books but you won’t necessarily be able to explain it. This is because a book is only a material manifestation of a much larger idea and this is what we need to focus on.

The book has seen many transitions in its form from the pre-print, hand-written manuscripts by trained scribes to the print-on-demand paperbacks which can be assembled easily. Technologies have not threatened but actually helped it change, evolve and keep up with the times. When we think of the digital book and the possibilities it offers, these are much more exciting than the rather Luddite lament about how the book is dead.

In the digital medium, the future of multimedia narratives is convergence. An ability to tell stories, record knowledge, share information and make connections through a variety of media forms and styles changes the future of the book. Imagine a book that begins with a text, continues through music, blends into user-generated pictures and ends with a video. Imagine this book being written, not only in different media but also by different people, simultaneously, resulting in a layered palimpsest rather than a static page. Imagine each page and every word on the page not as a fixed thing but one of a series of alternatives. Imagine a book that is written as it is read, and no longer excludes print-challenged or differently-abled people from contributing to the writing, reading and sharing process.

A trans-media format would stay true to the democratic and inclusive vision of a book and correct the limitations of print. Such a book would also free knowledge and information from businesses — let’s not forget that the publishing and education system is a business — and allow a new audience to participate in knowledge production. This is not a mere fantasy. We already have new models such as mash-ups which give us a new logic to sort and store information. Imagine Facebook as a collaborative platform where different information can come together to supplement the traditional book. Wikipedia is a space of knowledge production, which might simulate the older encyclopaedia form, but it is written by unpaid contributors, collaboratively, even as the Encyclopaedia Britannica announces its last ever print publication.

The form of the book is going to change as it has over the last 500 years. However, the idea of the book — a receptacle that contains and records collective wisdom, information, ideas, knowledge, experiences and imagination of humankind – is here to stay. The digital book has to be understood not merely as a digitisation of an older book, but has to be imagined as a smorgasbord of possibilities which will revolutionise the form of the book and bring it closer to its intended vision. It is time indeed to announce, ‘The Book is Dead! Long Live the Book!’ 

Read the original from the Indian Express

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