Still breathing. Books in the digital age

Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine sure knows how to kick off a conversation online. His post The book is dead. Long live the book raised numerous commenters and responders. He followed that up with a round up of the response call More on books.

As a commenter said on this site in response to my own post on digitisation, Jarvis is almost ignoring Fiction as many of the points he responds to are targeting Non-Fiction books. And the types of changes he envisages in that field seem perfectly reasonable.

It would be excellent if your 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.

And even ignoring that concern where do we go with Fiction? I think most people think of Fiction when they think of curling up by the fire with a good book. Unless of course, like me, you enjoy just a little too much History, Politics and Current Affairs and read title after title in those fields. They are unlikely to want or need hyperlinked text or resources beyond the text as the author envisaged it.

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. “Choose you own adventure” books for instance would see such changes as incredible feature enhancers.

By the looks of things now we have change without direction and for reasons that are also unclear. We have potential for massive development but no outstanding reason to pursue it except perhaps in Non-Fiction. We have, as I mentioned before, a looming struggle for control of book content and the winners may well decide how we get that content.

All in all, the current environment is confused and confusing. I cannot see change moving ahead too rapidly while the direction that change will take is still so unclear. If the change does come I hope that Jarvis is right. His world seems likable to the extent that it is achievable and remains open. I fear that he may be too optimistic. I think, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that reports of the death of books are greatly exaggerated.

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