Posts about books

Irony is not dead

I quote in full from Ironic Sans:

This cliché is dead. Long live this cliché!

Things that are proclaimed dead yet hailed to be long living:

Devo • The book • The internet • DEC • The Designer • Economics • Java • Email • Eminent Domain • The Human Rights Council • Layout • Clint the chimpanzee • Grokster • Environmentalism • Tax reform • Television • The Assessor • The peace process • The wolf • Yahoo! • PageRank • The kiosk • Microsoft Bob • Robin Hood • Camper Van Beethoven • Internet radio • Romanticism • Firefox Help • Wikipedia • DVD • PGP • Microsoft • AllofMP3 • Documentary • The King

And irony.

The book of the future

In the continuing discussion about the future of books, Infotainment Rules points us to Galleycat‘s discovery of a Library Journal interview with Ben Vershbow of The Institute for the Future of the Book, where he’s working on a project called Sophie:

This summer, it will release the first version of Sophie, an “all-purpose tool” for creating multimedia texts. Like the institute itself, Sophie’s mission is both simple and complex: to help authors easily create books that use any medium…. It’s a key goal, because the future of the book lies in the hands of authors first. Give them the tools they need to deliver dynamic, digital books, and dynamic digital books will flourish.

From the Q&A with Vershbow:

Q: You write about the “social life” of books, and I know you don’t mean where books go to hang out and cross-reference. What do you mean?

A: Well, to a certain extent, I do mean that books will be able to go hang out and cross-reference. I think digital libraries will be in constant communication with each other, sharing patterns of use, exchanging user-created metadata, building maps of meaning out of the recorded behaviors and interests of readers. Parts of books will reference parts of other books. Books will be woven together out of components in remote databases and servers. So, in some ways books will have a life of their own. But you’re right, what I’m getting at primarily is the social life of readers and authors that will exist around and inside of books.

Q: How do you see that developing?

A: Soon, books will literally have discussions inside of them, both live chats and asynchronous exchanges through comments and social annotation. You will be able to see who else out there is reading that book and be able to open up a dialog with them. You already see evidence of this in Wikipedia’s “discussion” pages and revision histories where the writers and editors negotiate the collaborative development of articles. Wikipedia is a totally new kind of book in that it is never static, always growing. It has boundaries, but these boundaries are always shifting and are highly porous. We also see social interaction in the reading and interpretation of texts-on blogs, for example, discussion forums, social bookmarking sites, Amazon reader reviews, and thousands of nonpublic venues like [discussion lists] and email. Again, this sort of interaction is not inherently new, but the Internet allows it to be recorded, aggregated, and woven together in astonishing new ways that defy geography and time.

Q: Is blogging a good example of this?

A: In many respects, the blogosphere is a society of readers, all publishing their notes and reflections in real time and linking to fellow readers….

At the institute, we talk about “the networked book.” This involves many of the things we’ve talked about already-the book as a place, as social software-but basically we’re talking about the book at its most essential, a structured, sustained intellectual experience, a mover of ideas-reinvented in a peer-to-peer ecology. The structure part is crucial, though. Whereas the web is a massive, diffuse array, more like a library than an individual book, a book provides some sort of shape, even if that shape is malleable and the boundaries porous, even if the edges of books overlap. A good future of the book is one that combines the best qualities of physical books with the best qualities of the network….

Q: What future for the print book? Is it even conceivable that future generations will eschew the benefit of multimedia?

A: It’s really impossible to predict exactly what will happen to print books. Of one thing, though, I am pretty certain: the main arena of intellectual discourse is moving away from print to networked, digital media. That doesn’t mean that certain forms of print books will not persist. In fact, the mass migration to computers and the Internet in some ways serves as a foil for print, dispensing with its more circumstantial uses and highlighting its most essential virtues. There are certain kinds of books I’m convinced will cease to exist on paper: directories, reference works, textbooks, travel guides, to name a few. But deep, linear narrative works read for pleasure like novels, biographies, and certain forms of history may persist in print for some time. Then again, this could simply be a generational question. People raised with high-quality electronic reading devices, using only multimedia electronic texts in school and forming little or no attachment to dead-tree media, may consider paper books at best fascinating antiquities, at worst, inert, useless things.

I want visit their laboratory!

More on books: fiction v. nonfiction

In the continuing discussion about books, Eoin Purcell, who has had a number of interesting posts on the matter, adds a fascinating speculation:

:It would be excellent if you Biology textbook were hyperlinked to bring you relevant text and images as you cram for some final exam, brilliant indeed to have the entire resources of the web organised for you and connected to from a single source.

I do wonder though at what point the book as such ceases to exist and becomes simply an access point to information rather than the source itself. I am not saying this is a negative rather that at some point you the amount of linking and directing changes the book from the product offering the information to one pointing you in the general direction of the information.

This echoes what the head of Gruner + Jahr said about journalists becoming moderators.

Purcell and one of his commenters also quite rightly challenge me on whether my own speculation about books applies to fiction. I think much of it doesn’t. I was never one of those who believed that technology would allow us to create our own endings to movies or books. Stories are the creation of an author; they do have their own beginnings and ends.

And so Purcell takes this one step farther and suggests that the future of books may have two separate trajectories: fiction and nonfiction. He writes:

Are we then creating a twin track of books, Non-Fiction which will whiz ahead and, by the sounds of the current discussion, become something new (I think calling it a book will become redundant if the features discussed become reality) and Fiction tied to the format that has seen it through so many changes already? And if we are is that such a bad thing? I am sure Fiction authors will avail of the possibilities of the new offerings when they emerge.

Yes, I don’t think that most fiction would benefit from links and discovery through tagging and other such wonders of the modern age. But one benefit of the internet novelists are starting to discover is that they can now have a direct relationship with their audiences, which will at least help them sell their next books and perhaps will let them go around or strengthen their positions with the middlemen: the publishers and booksellers.

Attack of the Carrmudgeons

A subculture of curmudeons is growing, ironically, in the blogosphere, the very medium they fear and dismiss. Nicholas Carr fancies himself the king of the curmudgeons. I’ll add Andrew Keen to the list. And that’s not just because they’ve both gone after me this week: Carr here (I returned fire here) and Keen here. They’re both worked up because I dared to suggest that book publishing needs updating.

It must not be easy being a curmudeon. You have to wake up every morning and find something to be against, something old to defend, and something new to ignore. Lots of commenters on Carr’s blog said he ran out of targets when he declared Wikipedia dead. Said one:

I think you’re overdoing your contrarian behaviour and seriously risk coming through as an attention-craver. Your analysis is very destructive and offers no suggestion for improvement – moreover it does not make for interesting, witty or even provocative reading.

So there. Keen — after having blown up with a business in the web bubble — now vaguely warns against the “grave cultural consequences” of the web and blogs and all this voodoo we do. He declares that he is “exposing Web 2.0 as Communism 2.0” with “unfashionably conservative thoughts about media, culture and technology.” (See the end of this post for another reference to the web as communism from someone who occasionally tries to play the curmudeon but who fails because he’s too open-minded, passionate, and eager for conversation to maintain the sneering, squinting growl of the dreaded ‘mudgeon for long.)

Now you might say that we’re the same, since I’m declaring books, newspapers, and networks dead or dying every other day. But I think the difference is that I am calling for not just the preservation but the expansion of writing, journalism, and entertainment into new realms: new forms, new audiences, new opportunities. Do I get carried away with my enthusiasm? Guilty, with glee.

Curmudgeons defend orthodoxy, power, and tradition. Carr rails against the democratization of media and defends the elite of paid critics and pundits. Keen goes so far as to rail against progress. I’ve been fascinated to see the curmudgeons come out of their dusty attics in the ongoing discussion here about books arguing that they don’t need no stinkin’ progress. Of course, I’ve seen the same atttitude in newspapers, where so many feared, resisted, and even attacked change — but that is now changing as journalists, like TV networks and producers, realize that resisting change is futile. Growling at the approaching glacier won’t make it melt. Just ask the dinosaurs.

Context is content

Nico Flores, a blogging friend from the BBC, writes a provocative post about content:

Content is nothing on its own. It only exists as part of conversations — understood not in the usual ‘blogsphere’ sense of deliberation, but as shared concerns (not my term), concerns that we must partake in to be part of communities. When I buy a novel I choose it not just because I think I might enjoy it, but also because it is also being read by other people, because it’s part of a larger movement that I’m interested in, or because it is relevant to something else I read. Reading is satisfactory only if I bring with me a certain baggage; and reading will add to my baggage, allowing me to appreciate other works and, crucially, to have more of a shared background with people around me. My point is that content–or, more precisely, the transaction of consuming content–is only meaningful as part of a wider conversation that is made up of countless related transactions.

He goes on to write about the role of discovery in content itself.

When Clay Shirky and I first saw AOL’s blogging tools and they fretted about the junk that may be created, we told them that “it’s not content until it’s linked.” That’s a glib line, but it’s in sync with Nico’s point about the larger definition of content.

Content does not exist without context. In the past, that simply meant we needed to know more about the creator or the time: The Diary of Anne Frank is about its context.

Part of what I’m trying to argue in my speculations about the fate of books is that context both defines and enriches content. Without that context, the content is poorer. The ability to link to and from content and its antecedents and successors in a chain of criticism, contribution, questioning, correction, argument, and remixing becomes part of the content itself. The timing of content matters, of course. What content does not say says a lot about it, as well. Who creates or consumes content also defines that content; chick lit is chick lit because it is written and read by chicks. And thanks to the ability of digital media to capture our content actions, the act of consumption is now an act of creation; our iPod playlists, our Amazon breadcrumbs, our Google clicks, our Flickr links, and our RSS aggregations are all collections of interaction with content that become content themselves.

But cutting off content from such conversation, in Nico’s broader use of the term — by imprisoning writing only in books or story-telling only on a disc or journalism behind a wall — we rob that content of content.