Saturday, April 10, 2010

Books in Future (by which I mean Now)

I like books, but I am not one of these people who waxes poetical about the pleasures of holding a paper book in one's hands, the smell of it, and all that. For me, the content of the book is much more important than the physical presence.

But there are advantages to reading "on paper": dumb paper is incapable of telling you anything but the story you're reading. That means that the book you're reading will never try to distract you from the book you're reading.

When I read anything on my computer, I am distracted. I try not to be, but I have to remember to do an awful lot to avoid it. I have to turn off my email alerts (sound) and my twitter alerts (visual) and I have to keep from touching the bottom of the screen, to avoid seeing the pop-up menu, whose happy icons will remind me of X project on Photoshop and Y project on Dreamweaver and Z project on Word.

If I'm reading a book and I come across a reference that I wonder about (what's the singular of "castrati" again?), I generally file it away, and, if I still wonder about it when I'm finished reading, I'll go look it up. But if I'm reading on my computer there's no point in waiting. With one button I get a dashboard with a dictionary, or I can go to Wikipedia or imdb or just Google it. And knowing how link leads on to link, I doubted if I should ever come back.

We could invent a one-button "reading" mode, that would require you to restart your computer in order to do anything else. But that's like a television that makes you exercise to watch it: a lovely little trick that  no one would volunteer to subject himself to. After all, you might need to send an email or look something up rather suddenly, and it would be a pain to have to wait for a restart.

As a writer, though, I think of this from the other angle. What can we do to the presentation of text to make it so immediate and enveloping that readers would not want to step away, even for a minute, and open themselves up to distraction. Video does this nicely by moving always forward. Sure, you can stop and come back, but you don't want to: you want to ride the video the whole way through. If you want to stop for anything, it's to replay something particularly cool.

So books need a few more techniques here. Books need something to move you through time (an audio file?), and something to concentrate your focus (a timed puzzle?), and it wouldn't hurt if the text moved, animated, along the lines of poemflow. There should be images, and the images should be surprising, funny, like the guy drinking the milk at the Club Devo Song Study (which is genius, by the way). In short, the book needs to become a more compelling environment than the alternatives; it needs to out-compete the distractions by distracting the reader itself.

And that's kind of sad, because one of the greatest things about books is the complete focus and absorption of just "getting into" a really great book. Still, I think the distraction nest can be made to work the readers mind into a nexus of concentration... and I'm going to see if I can figure out how to do that.

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