Opinion: Books are better without pages


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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Kindle owners buy twice as many books as non-Kindle owners. Just one of the many signs that while the paper book is dead, the narrative will live on.

If you are saying to yourself, “That sounds horrible. I hope books do not go away,” I ask you to consider the world’s poorest and most remote kids.

The manufactured book stunts learning, especially for those children. The last thing these children should have are physical books. They are too costly, too heavy, fall out-of-date and are sharable only in some common and limited physical space.

Paper books also do not do well in dampness, dirt, heat or rain. Not to mention that 320 textbooks require, on average, one tree and produce about 10,000 pounds of CO2 in manufacturing and delivery. This makes no sense. Kids in the developing world should not be sent physical books.

The only way to provide books to the 2 billion children in the world is electronically. You cannot feed children or clothe them electronically, but you can certainly educate and provide hope with these weightless, sizeless and mostly costless 1’s and 0’s.

Therein is the most practical reason that books cannot have paper pages. From here on in, it gets more subtle.

Right now, a paper book is undeniably more comfortable to read than a computer display. Furthermore, the physical book and the library are emblematic of and loved by a literate and informed society. The library is also a gathering place and social venue.

To suggest books are dead is considered heathen or geeky or both. And while today’s reading experience on an e-book is less than perfect, the basic concept is the right direction. They never go out of print. There is no marginal cost in making more. They are delivered at the speed of light. They take no storage space. They can be automatically translated. And, who knows, someday we will be able to squirt them directly into our heads without even reading.

When people argue against digital books they tell me about touch, feel and smell. There is a certain romantic conceit taking place. In this sense, the emergence of digital books is like indoor plumbing. Some people argued against indoor plumbing on the force of the damage it would do to the social fabric of a village (if the women did not meet daily at the river’s edge). Likewise, people will argue that the death of books is the death of a literate society.

What book lovers are really talking about when they talk about “feel” and “smell” is the physical interface from which you get a grasp (literally) of size and a sense of place (in the story). As you are
reading, the amount you have read is in your left hand and how far you have to go is in your right.

We all tend to remember the size and weight of books, the color of their jackets and where they are on our shelves, because our body was involved in all those actions (motor memory reinforcement it is called). We lose most of that with the little sliding bar (known as a feducial) at the bottom of a Kindle’s screen.

Also true about paper: the white is white, the black is black and the resolution is so high we do not think of it. Though, all these things will soon be true with e-books as well.

Some of what we can learn from paper books has transference. Some never will and society will have to get over it. This is not new. Think of music. Much attention was spent on high fidelity sound systems back in the day to reproduce music with utter verisimilitude. Today kids could care less. It’s about mobility, access anywhere all the time. We have gone from HiFi to WiFi.

As digital books unfold (so to speak) three transformations will occur that are very different than what we know in books and reading today. At the risk of being too cute, call them: wreading, righting and utterly new economic models.

Wreading. All things digital blur. Any formerly crisp boundary in the physical world becomes porous and fuzzy in the digital world by the mere fact that content is no longer captive to the container. While the ideas behind any piece of fiction or non-fiction are intangible, rendered as ink on paper, they are immutable. Kept in the native form of bits, by contrast, the expression of an idea is not only fungible, but the reader can become a writer – what I am calling a wreader. A previously solitary experience becomes a social experience (unlike this one, so far).

Righting. Wikipedia is an example. It is about intellectual property seen as a collective process. The expansion and correcting of content is admittedly more germane to non-fiction than fiction, but the point is that text with digital readers can evolve both in terms of facts and point of view on those facts. To date with physical books, the closest approximation we have is reading somebody’s annotations in the margin. Another example is commentary at the end of a digitally published article. You might argue that the original narrative of such an article is often more considered, deliberate and refined than the comments that follow. True. But the volume (in the sense of loudness) and tone of the feedback is a form of self-correction of ideas, one that we have never had before.

New economic models. Finally, the collapse of current business models behind print media in general is starting to alarm more than just those losing their jobs. We are consuming more and more words thanks to the internet. True, it is easy to dismiss many or most of them as noisy, senseless chit-chat, or the cheapest form of self-publishing. But boy there are some beautiful blogs. Orangette and 2or3thingsiknow are every bit as well written or illustrated as any cookbook or commentary as I have ever read. By any stretch of the imagination these are not published and vetted only by their popularity, a Zagat versus Michelin process.

For these reasons the really new frontier is in editorial. I believe that the number of people who make a living from writing will skyrocket, not go the other direction. The industrial middleman will vanish. The people who help us determine what to read are ever important and new ones will arrive on the scene. The economics of reading and writing will be a cacophony, many small players, some big players, new players, but the total business will be huge.

There will be no single economic model behind it. Stop looking. Deliberation about which one: advertising, subscription, taxation and direct payments — are close to irrelevant. Far more interesting is that we pay twice as much for entertainment and information (almost $200 per month) than we did 10 years ago.

Telephone companies complained that many people were making free phone calls with Skype. But if you looked at the new market of WiFi devices, computer subscriptions and short-term access fees, the total people shell out is far higher than the previous telephone business. It will be the same with books.

Many of us spend far more time reading and typing than we do speaking. That is a big change. We also look at far more images than we ever did before. We play with words much more than we did before, too. We Google something and then Google the result. We get so carried away that we forget what we were looking for in the first place. It’s a process that may keep us up til midnight, but it’s also a natural curiosity amplified by interactive digital media.

So if you are a publisher, sell differently or retire soon. If you are an author, don’t just write for dead trees. If you are a reader, enjoy the unending opportunities, keeping in mind that free sex is different than love. Quality writing, clear thinking and good stories are to be loved and cherished. Physical books, as we know them today, needlessly limit these.

Nicholas Negroponte is the founder the MIT Media Lab. He also founded One Laptop per Child and is the author of the 1995 bestseller "Being Digital." Negroponte currently serves on the Wall Street Journal's Special Committee, as well as GlobalPost's editorial advisory board.