E-books Should Take a Page Out of The Internet

On: October 18, 2010
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About Erik van Bemmelen
I am a student of the New Media Master at the University of Amsterdam. My main academic interests are the new online business models around production, distribution and consumption of culture in general and music in particular. My goal is to make a living out of downloading music.


Being a student of New Media, people I know who are less involved in the world of new media sometimes turn to me with questions on the latest technological developments that are being covered in the news. As if I personally were responsible for the launch of every new device, I get subjected to a barrage of questions (I do the same thing to befriended medical students with every question regarding my physical well-being, so I can’t complain). The device that attracted to most attention was, not totally surprising, the iPad. Of course, not being Steve Jobs or even a seller of this object, I don’t have a particular interest in defending this device. And it certainly needs defending in circles outside of new media and Apple fan boys and fan girls.

This is because people can’t seem to grasp what the iPad is: is it an e-reader, a laptop or something entirely different? This is the power of a device like the iPad. It’s the first iPad. It’s an e-reader with so much functions that it appears to be a laptop with fewer functions, or better yet: a supersized iPhone that doesn’t allow you to make a phone call. It is however, the prime example of an e-reader type of device that successfully combines all sorts of media in one device. Of course a device like this looks and feels much like a laptop or iPhone (or whatever smartphone) and leaves people wondering what the use of this device is.

Right now, I wouldn’t just buy an e-reader like the ones that are on the market today, save for the iPad. Its options are too limited and it does not yet fully make use of the possibilities an electronic book can realize. To see what can be possible with e-readers, I believe one simply has to look at what is possible on the Internet. As computers and the Internet took on text, images, sound and video, it was only a matter of time before people would start consuming their total books on a similar device as well. The most important change would be that the size and shape of the device on which you will read, has to fit the experience of reading a book. It has to be as convenient as a book when you want to read in a relaxed mode. One of the most important enablers of this experience is a screen that is pleasant to look at for a long period of time. ‘Pages’ must be turned in a natural and effortless way. Also, an electronic book can have a lot of advantages over a paper book, such as simply searching for keywords, copying and sharing pieces of the text, placing extensive bookmarks and making interactive notes.

What I would want out of an electronic book depends on what kind of a book I’m reading. When reading an academic paper on a new media subject, the text could use a more dynamic way of reading. Take the book of Henry Jenkins, ‘Convergence culture: where old and new media collide‘ for example. He uses endless examples of fanmade culture, but is only able to describe it in words. With the possibilities of an e-reader, the text could be way more forward, just showing a video clip and telling how it relates to his argument. This saves time and makes it a far more joyful and significant experience of the story. By making the examples easily and fast accessible, his overall argument gains strength. In this way, non-fiction books could be greatly enhanced on an e-reader.

So when to enrich a fictional book or text? I would say, when talking about a different form of media in a text, you should link to it or be able to show it in the text. Or when in the classic novel ‘American Psycho‘ the protagonist dissects Genesis songs in between murdering and torturing, you could easily just stream the specific songs he is talking about. Amazon must love this idea: when reading about a Genesis album, just click ‘buy’! This is of course something that can be subject to a lot of spam and unwanted commercial offers. Also, you could include features similar to DVD extras, such as audio commentary, a standard audio book function or a making of.

But how far do we want this to go? Do you want your e-reader to play The Lord of the Rings movie soundtrack when you are reading the original book by J. R. R. Tolkien? I think not. While the possibilities for enhancing the text with different media on an e-reader are plentiful, a book is still a book. When I want to read a (fiction) book, I don’t want to watch a movie or listen to its soundtrack. The new way of reading is in this sense more suitable for educational, shorter texts or non-fiction books that feature a lot of references to other media content, much like how Internet sites have been for a long time now.

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