Romancing The Book

On: October 17, 2010
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About Natalie Dixon
I’m a new media thinker, strategist and writer. My current research focus is on the ‘affective bandwidth’ of mobile-mediated communication. My research interests include affective computing, HCI, biomapping, emotion, the impact of mobile phones on social behaviour, analytical design and information visualization. I graduated from the new media track of the Media and Culture masters programme in 2011.


We shuffle into the queue of people leaving the plane and I notice my neighbour’s Jonathan Franzen paperback peeking out of the seat back. “Hey, you left your book behind,” I say. She winks, “That’s the idea”. In 20 minutes or so 150 new passengers will stumble on the airbus and maybe the one person who sits in seat 3B will pick up The Corrections and fall in love with it. My neighbour will never know what happens to her book but she liked the story. And now perhaps the next person will too. The book becomes an unconscious player in a game of tag that may or may not leave some impression behind on its readers. Sadly, this version of tag is not supported by iPad.

It’s the war cry of many print sentimentalists: “I love the way it feels” or “ I love the smell of books” or “I like that I can fold my favourite pages or even tear out my favourite magazine editorials.” All of these features are available through the new breed of e-readers. You can bookmark favourite passages, you can share pages you love with friends, you can read the newspaper at the breakfast table – but not swat flies with your newspaper, um iPad (watch the clip below).

But what do we do without our sensory fix: the feel and smell of books? Is this just dreamy nostalgia? Or the overused lament of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers? Soon to find its way to a Wikipedia archive? The manufacturers of The Smell of Books (an aerosol e-book enhancer) would most likely say, “Spray your Kindle with one of our products and get on with reading your new e-novel already!”

The Smell of Books

The Smell of Books

But if all the things we love about books, including the smell, can be recreated in e-readers are there any parts of the reading culture we need to mourn? What about the art of book cover design? Or the craft of intricate pop-up books? Or the ever-popular kids sticker books? Or simply the art of storytelling? Will kids huddle around the iPad or Kindle for a reading lesson with grampa? Without a doubt they will. And the next generation of e-books will include additional sound and video to make the reading experience more sensory, more exciting – a multimedia heaven.

Concepts of touch and smell led me back to the author John Naisbitt who in 1982 wrote a book called Megatrends, which coined the term high tech high touch. A catchy phrase that he used to describe the concept of our human reactions to new technology in an effort to balance the ecosystem we live in. High tech encompassed computers and computing and (and now presumably the internet). He grouped things like gardening and alternative medicine under high touch.

Naisbitt explains:

“…the more our lives are steeped in technology, the more people want to be with other people (at movies, museums, book clubs, kids soccer games); the more high tech medicine becomes, the greater the interest in alternative healing practices; the more we toil on computers using our brains and not our bodies, the more high touch and sensual our leisure activities become (gardening, cooking , carpentry, bird watching).”

Working with Naisbitt’s notion can the burgeoning e-reader market create new possibilities for shared reading experiences? The Economist magazine quoted many publishing executives who argue that the “digital revolution could usher in a golden age of reading in which many more people will be exposed to digital texts.” Could Naisbitt’s theory of high tech (in this case e-books) but counterbalanced by a bigger shared experience of reading (book clubs) and shared story telling (parents and children) and ultimately a bigger appreciation for (e)books?

Can we reduce resistance to e-books to anecdotal musings that will simply fade as we accept that the e-reader as a savior not an alien? Leaving your iPad on the plane however, still won’t be an option.

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