Deb: Turning on the Book

My research is around the use of ebooks.

When I mention this to people, they are often quick to tell me of their love for print books: the love for the way they feel, the way they smell, the way they look assembled on bookshelves as a testament to past reading and an expression of self.

When ebooks first appeared, and e-reading devices like the Kindle and iPad pushed them into the mainstream, the late Steve Jobs declared that “print was ripe for digital destruction” and headlines foretold the death of the book.

It is perhaps little wonder that many of us rushed to the defence of the printed book, professing our love for it, championing it much like an old friend who should not be usurped in our affections and our loyalties by the characterless electronic version.

And for those of us who flirted with this new format, there was often disappointment. There is general agreement that the printed book is easier to use; we prefer being able to flick through and find what we are looking for; printed pages can be highlighted and annotated; sticky notes and dog-ears mark important pages, and we appreciate being able to see how far through the book we are.

I confess to being a lover of print books.

I still have books on my book shelf that were influential in my high school years, and actually, my grandchildren have some of my childhood books circa 1965 (and there’s another limitation of the ebook: it is unlikely that it will be collected and passed down through generations). I keep a pile of books next to my bed, half-read, waiting-to-be-read, dipped-in-and-out-of. However, I also have e-reading devices which are loaded up with reading material when I travel, or truly come into their own when I want a particular book here and now. As much as we might love the feel and smell of a book, who doesn’t love the instant gratification of an immediate download?

Despite the early fears of the demise of the book, indications are that any threat to the print book has been averted, and the two media appear to have settled into a peaceful co-existence.

Rather than the ebook competing with the print book for a place in people’s hearts and minds, each meets different reading needs. But I wonder if there is a place for a new format.

What if we think of an ebook as offering a new and different experience?

Ebooks allow content to be presented through a variety of media beside text and image—video and audio, as well the possibility of other interactive features such as hyperlinks, quizzes, dynamic visual models or maps that can be manipulated.

A wonderful example of this format is the award-winning ode to print books, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore (2011) by Moonbot Studios, an ebook which combines a beautifully told story in which readers can follow the words (in their choice of ten different languages), listen (or not) to the story being narrated, hear sound effects, and watch and manipulate the charming animated illustrations. Is it book? Is it a movie? Neither. It is an enhanced ebook.

See how Moonbot Studios bring the book to life in the short video introduction below.

See the IMAG·N·O·TRON in action! from Moonbot Studios on Vimeo.

Enhanced ebooks allow the reader to engage with content in different ways. There are obvious applications for educational textbooks and children’s books, but other genres could be given new layers, for example travel books, art books, instructive books like cooking or mechanics; the list is endless with a little imagination. Of course there are significant costs involved in the production of these formats, and it is not surprising that publishers are moving cautiously in this direction given consumers’ somewhat tepid response to ebooks. But could it be a semantic issue? As long as it’s called an ‘eBOOK’, we will continue to have fairly well-defined and narrow expectations of the format based on our conception of a book. However, by understanding an ebook simply through the definition of a printed book, the potential for realizing a new genre of entertainment and information may be stymied.

Books and movies do not necessarily compete. Each offers a unique narrative experience and so does the enhanced ebook.

Alan Bennett is quoted as saying that “A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”No arguments with that, but how do we ignite our imagination in order to turn on the full potential of the ebook?

Yours in conversation,

Image source: Mike Licht. Schulknabe mit iPad, after Albert Anker