The Future of the Non-Fiction Book

While reference books are clearly to be ready to be replaced by newer technologies, non-fiction books and treatises which argue for some viewpoint seem more difficult to replace. Readers usually spend hours with such books and no one really wants to read for any length of time at a CRT. We much prefer to curl up with a good book in bed or in an easy chair. So let's first get the hardware issue out of the way. The elimination of this type of book may indeed be a question of hardware in the end, but let's separate the issues. Let us assume that such book could be made available in computers that felt and looked just like books to a reader. That is, imagine you are curled up with your book in your favorite chair, but that book, which feels and looks just like a book, actually can change the information on the page by your pressing a button instead of turning the actual page. Since your book is also a computer, we can add some other functionality as well.

What additional functionality would you want? You might want to ask a question of the author at some point. You might want to see what is being described in video. You might want an alternative point of view to the one being expressed by the author. You might want additional details about what you have been reading that are not available in the book. Is there something wrong with these questons? I honestly don't see why these are anything but reasonable desires and satisfying them is anything but a good thing.

As a step in this direction, we built ASK Michael. We took Michael Porter's existing text "The Competitive Advantage of Nations" and put it on a powerful portable computer. It is much easier to find what Porter has to say using this ASK program than it is by using the actual book. The indexing scheme we used works very easily and topics naturally flow in a variety of directions.

We chose this book because its linear flow didn't work very well. It is important to realize that books made of paper are inherently linear and one directional. Each page is supposed to follow the next. It is the form of the book that gives rise to the form of the arguments expressed in the book. Because an author knows his reader will read each page in order, he writes each page in order or at least tries to make it seem as if he were talking in a linear and orderly way. Thoughts, on the other hand, while they seem sequential, really are not. People have their minds going in several directions at once, and they may have a variety of questions to ask at any given point, each of which would take them in a different direction.

Further, it is only the economics and practicalities of book publishing that make the idea of "one author--one book" a reality. Publishers can't get antagonists to argue with each other in a book since if they are really antagonists they probably don't get along well enough to produce something together. And mixing video in with writing, even if it is technologically feasible, would be a copyright nightmare

To put this another way, the system that sells books, the authors who write books, the readers who read books, and the critics for whom books in their current form hold a very special place, all would object to my concept of this future book, hardware considerations aside. They would object because it would be difficult to package and sell the new book form, because the concept of a single-authored work would probably go away, because readers aren't used to this idea, and because critics are dependent on the art form they have become adept at analyzing.

It seems obvious to me that none of these are really very good reasons from the point of view of delivering the information readers desire when they desire it. It remains to be seen whether readers prefer this new means of expressing information, one with multiple directions, multiple media, and multiple authors, to the single direction, media, and author, form of information. Still, it's important to understand that what we lose with this new concept is not the idea of single author's expressions of a viewpoint, but the packaging of that viewpoint as a single salable entity. I don't think this matters at all except to publishers and authors, and both of them would be satisfied by alternative means anyway if it meant more money and more distribution of their ideas.

Will this multiple form of authorship, the type which comes quite naturally with ASK tools, will replace the book? I think the answer to that is obvious. It will if it is better, by whatever definitions of better apply. It is, I believe, important to create this new kind of non-fiction medium and let readers (or users if that's the more appropriate term) decide.

Next Story The Future of the Novel

Outline Where am I in the content of the book?

Give Me Alternatives

What Is Next?

What Led To This?

What Should Be Avoided

What Can Be Done?

Give Me Background

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