What’s in a Name? When a Book Shouldn’t be a Book

Nov 01, 2012

Close your eyes and say it out loud: book.

Now what do you see? When we call something a book, an expectation automatically bubbles to the surface, nurtured by centuries of collective historical memory. The name evokes a specific shape, structure, and format - not to mention an entire catalogue of sensory details. There is romance in its tangibility. Ebook naysayers and wary bibliophiles often refer to the feel and smell of a book, claiming how such simple pleasures are irreplaceable. Perhaps they are.

When first confronted with the enhanced ebook, I must admit that I felt as if something sacred had been utterly violated. What else would you expect from a literature student? I saw physical books and their technological simplicity as the very essence of my past, present, and future. But the passage of time has worn down my traditionalist ways. I suppose the desire for novelty is finally winning out. Yet I'm tempted to wonder whether I would have been more open to this new format if it wasn't even labeled as an "enhanced ebook."

Enhanced. Electronic. Book.

Lately I have been prone to speculating whether content creators feel shackled by the terminology and the looming question, "when is a book no longer a book?" because apparently digitization and enhancement pose a threat to our quintessential notion of "bookness."

I have no qualms about the industry striving to do justice to the legacy of the codex, but simultaneously recognizing and abandoning the old structure has naturally given way to a product identity crisis. Content and user experience have fallen into a clumsy waltz.

In an EContent column titled, "In Search of Content Sanity," Scott Abel addresses the difficulties in creating a balanced and seamless dynamic between content and UX:

"Far too many content strategy gurus overemphasize the importance of the content while glossing over the most important part of a content-driven experience-getting the right content to the right people at the right time and in the right format and language on the device of that person's choosing... Far too many user experience and information architecture folks overemphasize the importance of adaptive technologies and interactive tricks while glossing over the content needs of the consumer."

Now I summon another question that has been niggling at my brain: What is content, really? And within the context of the digital revolution, is text considered content or an aspect of user experience?

This merits discussion, since the bibliophile's love of books cannot be divorced from the love of text.

Some might argue that the content of a print book is equivalent to its text, which is equivalent to those invisible and intangible ideas which produce the writing. User experience, therefore, is pendant on the invisibility of the technology (ink and paper) and its ability to create a seamless connection between reader and content. But notice the overlap. Text needs ink and paper to exist, and when you get down to it, written language itself is a construct.

Content, therefore, is the Idea itself. Text is a technology, which delivers user experience. Outside of notable exceptions such as children's books, text is the technology which defines the book-reading experience. Standard ebooks still fit neatly into this scheme, and despite the technological limitations of e-paper and e-ink devices, the form jives well enough with its function. 

It should not be surprising that "text illuminators" in the form of interactive features and/or multimedia can easily serve as grounds for a negative or, at best, an ambivalent consumer experience. An enhanced ebook, which garishly ornaments text with multimedia bling, runs the risk of being trite. Conversely, an enhanced ebook, which overemphasizes text, does little justice to tablet technology.

The relationship between current book technology and text is, simply put, awkward.

If creators of enhanced ebooks want to fully utilize the tablet technology at their disposal and push the digital revolution towards new horizons, then perhaps they should not aspire to make books at all. While I'm not suggesting that they rid this new genre of text, perhaps the healthiest option is to divorce themselves from the nostalgic mission of "reinventing the book."

Perhaps they should take a hint from video game developers and push user experience and technology to serve the Idea (oftentimes the Story) by any and all means possible. If that means shedding "bookness," then so be it. If it isn't a book, then text is no longer sacred. If text is no longer sacred, then everything is permitted. The new genre then has the freedom to evolve into whatever it is meant to be.