What does it mean to be a book?

Recently I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a book. What makes a book, a “book”? I’m willing to bet that when you see the word “book” you think of a physical container for words that are printed on paper, bound within covers and sits on a bookshelf. Wikipedia agrees with you:

A book is a set of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of ink, paper, parchment, or other materials, fastened together to hinge at one side. A single sheet within a book is a leaf, and each side of a leaf is a page.

It seems that the physicality of a book has a lot to do with its book-ness. In other words, when we think of a book it’s usually as something that we can hold. This makes sense in a historical context because writing in books was an evolution of previous systems that allowed the recording of words and ideas onto some kind of natural material e.g. tablets (clay, not Apple). When you actually think about it, maybe the only reason we think of books as printed collections of words is because for the past several hundred years that’s all they were. Maybe we think of a book as a collection of words printed on bound paper because that is all we have ever known a book to be.

If we consider the design principle that form should follow function we see that the purpose of a thing should define it’s form. In other words, if the purpose of a book is to record and preserve ideas with the intent of sharing them at scale with others, then we should choose a form that allows us to most effectively achieve that function. For most of our recent history, printing words onto paper was pretty much the only way that complex ideas could survive the death of a person. While oral traditions of preserving and sharing ideas are also valid, they don’t scale when it comes to sharing with very large numbers of people.

We should be asking what technology currently exists that enables books to take on a form that allows them to better achieve the function of storing and sharing ideas at scale over extended periods of time? Why do we still think of a “book” as a thing that sits on a shelf, when digital tools enable us to create new forms of books that are better suited to achieving their function. And I’m not talking about PDFs as digital versions of books. The PDF version of a printed book differs only in degree from the printed version and its fundamental properties are generally the same. For example, the PDF is “better” than the print version because we can make more copies at a lower cost. This property makes the cost of distribution (i.e. copying) of PDFs essentially zero. But besides decreasing the cost of efficient distribution, how else is the PDF of a book different to a printed book?


What if “books” could be more than a collection of printed pages (whether the “print” and “page” is ink- or pixel-based)? What if, instead of thinking of books in terms of their physical properties (i.e. what they look and feel like) we think of them in terms of collections of ideas that are stored and shared over time (i.e. what books are for)? Now we’re talking about separating the function of a book from its form, and digital technology is inherently suited for this. In the default idea of “book”, form and content are intricately tied together. Words are collected into sentences, paragraphs and chapters, and printed onto pages. The words and the pages are inseparable.

“Digital” allows us to abstract ideas out into smaller collections (much smaller than chapters), which can be shared, modified and repurposed far more easily than 20 printed pages collected into a chapter. Instead of thinking of words, sentences and paragraphs as collections in a chapter, we can think of them as discrete ideas – down to the “word” level – which can then be categorised and presented as such. It means that we could, for example, allow for readers to search for ideas and abstract concepts, rather than just words. Imagine putting together a custom textbook that is made of excerpts or ideas from a variety of other books that are created this way, in a similar process to what we can currently do with books created in Wikipedia. Imagine if readers could download and share, not only single chapters of a book, but single ideas?


“Digital” means that we can separate the form and content of writing so that we can focus on creating content leaving computers to focus on form. Machine readability is what allows me to write a blog post in plain text and leave the formatting and presentation of my content to the WordPress theme that I have installed on my blog. It’s what allows my content to show up, stripped of formatting and design, in your Pocket reader when you save it to read later. It’s what allows you to subscribe to my posts and have my content show up in whatever format and device you choose to receive it in.

Machine readability allows affordably serving the information to a wider variety of users (in a presentation that they can understand), where users may be humans or machines. This requires the ability to recast abstractions in new instances quickly and cheaply (that is, without time-consuming reworking), which generally requires automation rather than person-hours of labor.

Responsive design is the idea that content will take the form of whatever device you’re using to access it, and has become a foundational principle of modern digital design. If you’re a content creator, you need to ensure that your work is going to take whatever form the content consumer requires it to. If they’re on a 20 inch monitor, it needs to look as good as it does on a 4 inch phone screen. Try making a PDF do that.


This is the power of separating out content and presentation. How a thing looks is different to what it does. So we come back to the idea that a book is a container of ideas, not words, which means that the way in which the ideas are expressed, stored and shared need have nothing to do with the ideas themselves. A book therefore, does not actually need to be a book.

Now that we’ve separated form from function, what does that allow us to do with the “collection of ideas” (i.e. the book)? Well, for one thing, it removes the requirement that ideas are presented linearly. When you can break up the ideas into discrete items, they can be remixed, distributed and presented in non-linear ways e.g. using hyperlinks to connect different ideas in different places. It also means that the “book” can be presented and shared as either a physically printed volume, an ebook, an audiobook, a website, an RSS feed or an email newsletter.

By using digital tools, we lose nothing (we can still print the book) and gain several advantages that print simply cannot provide. For example, you could make sections of the book available to be distributed as embedded content or as streams of content (via RSS) rather than PDF pages. One practical benefit of this is that further distribution is possible in very simple ways. Just like a tweet can be embedded in any website, a section of content from the book could be embedded into any other media. Think what this would mean for generating discussion and debate around your content, as opposed to emailing a PDF of a whole book around.


Finally, on a more pragmatic level publishing a book – not just as an ebook but also as a website, RSS feed, or mobile app – provides the following benefits:

  • You can include animations, audio interviews, linking out to external content, and embedding videos.
  • Digital text can be converted to audio via text-to-speech software, creating access for people with disabilities.
  • The separation of content and presentation means that you could edit and update content via a content management system, which means that errors can be corrected at no cost, and the updated content is propagated through the system, changing automatically whenever it is viewed.
  • New chapters could be added or modified over time at no cost. There would be no need for updated editions that are distributed in cargo containers to other countries because every instance of the “book” is the most up-to-date version.

Taking all of the above into account, what is the value of publishing a physical book in hard copy? I honestly can’t think of any reasons that are not rooted in legacy or simple momentum, for us to seriously consider printing words onto paper, binding them together and shipping them around the world. I think that in order for us to most effectively share our ideas with others is to ask what it means – in a digital age – to be a book?


eBooks: still no good for education?

I want to love eBooks, I really do. I think there is enormous potential for digital books in education, especially with the rise of cheaper tablets and smartphones. But, I also think that as long as publishers control the ecosystem, the promise of eBooks won’t be realised and they’ll never provide the learning opportunities they could.

The problem (or rather, one of the problems) is that publishers see digital and online simply as a distribution system for digital versions of paper books. For publishers, eBooks are the same as paper books, and until they throw away the old paradigm of a book being a series of pages with static content, eBooks will have little to offer learners besides a more efficient delivery of content.

Those were a few thoughts running through my mind after a presentation I attended yesterday by the International Association for Digital Publishers (IADP), a UK-based, non-profit organisation who really are trying to bring about positive change, particularly in developing countries. They work closely with publishers to make digital textbooks available for students at substantially reduced costs, which is not a bad thing.

But, at the end of the day the digital textbooks that come through the publishers are still the same as paper books, except they have more restrictions. They can’t be resold. Text can’t be highlighted or annotated (this is not always the case, but often it is). They are often locked to a single device (I know this isn’t the case with the Kindle). They can’t be lent to someone else. Before I can get behind eBooks for education, here is a list of features that I’d like to see (I haven’t done any research on this, so some of these may already be present in some readers).

  • Social annotations and highlighting. Students and teachers must not only be able to make their own notes and highlight text, but they must be able to see what others in the same course are writing. Notes and highlights should have at least three levels of permissions controlling who can see your notes.
    • Public – everyone who owns the same book
    • Group – everyone in the same arbitrary collection of people e.g. class, institution, book club, etc.
    • Private – only you
  • The content should be editable after the purchase of the book. Students should be able to embed videos, class presentations and images into the book. They should be able to combine text from different sources to make their own chapters. They should be able to add external links to the reference list, or page citations, pointing to related content on the web.
  • “Audio” must be built in. All content should be available to be listened to. Even images should have “alternate text” tags that allow authors to describe the image. Students should be able to listen to their books while traveling, and should be able to record their own audio notes.
  • Books must be available across multiple devices, including desktop computers, laptops, tablets, phones, and even TV’s. This is a challenge as long as you think of digital books as being single items, which is how publishers see it. As long as they can keep convincing you that an eBook is a single product, they can control how that product is distributed. But, why shouldn’t I be able to maintain multiples copies of my digital book across multiple devices?
  • Student should be able to rent books, either from publishers or from university libraries. At least if I buy a book that’s only needed for a semester, I can resell it later. Once I buy an eBook, there’s nothing I can do with it when I no longer need it.

This list is hardly exhaustive and I’m sure I’ll think of other features to add, just as soon as I’ve posted this. I also realise that there are problems with the features mentioned above, mostly related to the DRM restrictions that publishers insist on to protect their intellectual property. However, I also think that until we stop thinking of eBooks as collections of pages with static content, we’ll be stuck behind the old paradigm of printed books, and they’ll have little to offer students besides more restrictions on what they can do with the books they’ve paid for.

We can’t control what the publishers do with their books, but we can be more thoughtful about what we want for our students and ourselves. Publishers are selling us short by continuing to give us the same books that we’ve had for centuries, except now we’re even more constrained in what we can do with them. What do you think? Is the current situation the best that eBooks and publishers have to offer, and if not, then what can we do to change the system?


Posted to Diigo 06/29/2012

    • “What do you think Marshall McLuhan would have said about ebooks? How do they change the message of books?”
    •   McLuhan pointed out the initial content of a new medium is the old medium it replaces, and we seem to be in that phase with ebooks—the content of today’s ebooks is print books. What that also means is that we don’t yet know what an ebook really is, because it has yet to take its true shape. But there is an important hint: we can see in the web itself what a computerized, networked, screen medium looks like, and that’s likely to be a closer model for the ultimate form of an ebook than an old printed book is.

    • I concur with Nick’s suggestion that we don’t yet know the form of e-books, because they are still mainly containers for the textual residue once the pages of books have evaporated, and that reading will become (has become) a more confusing experience.

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Twitter Weekly Updates for 2012-02-20


Posted to Diigo 01/08/2012

    • We need highly educated teachers, appreciation of the profession, empower teachers, have decision making in classroom and school level etc. When these are in place we may focus on education, instead of training children to tests.
    • I think, however, that these stories are missing one important thing: smart, continuos development of the system
    • So what is smart continuos development? It is a bit like agile software development.
    • Here is my (agile) values for educational system development:

      • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
      • Working class room / school / school district over comprehensive documentation
      • Stakeholder (administration, schools, teachers, researchers, parents etc.) collaboration over contract negotiation
      • Responding to change over following a plan

      Finally. There’s always room to be better.

    • This opens access up to students using any browser and any device, and sets Kno apart from other digital textbook providers who’ve focused on iOS and Android devices
    • Kno’s app will now be available on the Web, not just on the iPad
    • Kno is unveiling a Facebook app. Students will be able to access their textbooks while on the website where they’re already spending a large portion of their time
    • students’ relationship with their textbooks isn’t simply about reading, it’s studying and (just as likely) cramming. Indeed, on the first day of class, says Rashid, a textbook is the most important tool a student has. But as the semester progresses, the value of the textbook diminishes; and the value of the student’s notes — the information the student has curated, highlighted, jotted down, annotated, and so on — surpasses it. So when it comes time to study for finals, the student’s notes — from class and from the textbook — are what matters. And to that end, the last product announced by Kno today is Journal. Like Quiz Me, this feature is now a standard part of the Kno iPad app. Journal automatically transfers all the images, text and media that a student highlights, along with annotations and notes (and eventually audio recordings from class too, says Rashid) from the textbook into a separate (but in-app) notebook for easy review

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Twitter Weekly Updates for 2011-09-12

  • @ryantracey they’re passages I highlight using diigo, they get pulled into the blog post so I can find them later #
  • @amcunningham Often use personal experience in class, never thought of them as stories. Maybe it’s the “telling” of the story that matters #
  • We learn from stories and experience Been thinking how to integrate stories into my teaching but haven’t managed yet #
  • Study Highlights Superficiality of Digital Native Concept Socio-economic background impacts digital sophistication #
  • Revisiting the Purpose of Higher Education There needs to be a shift away from knowledge and skills #
  • Are we missing reflection in learning? We need to create formal space for reflection within the curriculum #
  • TED video: a next generation digital book #
  • 5 Myths About Collaboration #
  • The Sad State of Educational Research Educational researchers also responsible for spreading poorly developed ideas? #
  • @amcunningham nice…didn’t know about some of those tools. Been meaning to have a look at but haven’t had the chance yet #
  • @amcunningham pretty cool…is it a list of all your tweets, or just those related to a specific theme? #
  • Video: Hands-on with Inkling 2.0, the iPad textbook — Tech News and Analysis #
  • The real cost of academic publishing via @guardian #
  • So when does academic publishing get disrupted? #
  • Why the Impossible Happens More Often #
  • Achieving substrate-independent minds: no, we cannot ‘copy’ brains #
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Twitter Weekly Updates for 2011-03-14

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Twitter Weekly Updates for 2011-01-10

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Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-12-20

  • dRonaldArendse Boxing day #
  • @Shuayb702 the weather here is ridiculous #
  • @RonaldArendse spending Christmas and birthday with my sister & her family #
  • Just arrived in Durban, the air is wet #
  • Future of education. R we having the right conversation? Ed. & social conditions are inseparable #
  • The Problem of Filters and Silos Big ideas lie @ the edge of our field, where we spend the least time #
  • Which Ideas Are the Good Ones? It may take time to recognise the value of innovating in the curriculum #
  • On my way to Durban for a week, let me know if u want to hang out #
  • Anyone got Cell C 3G USB modem running on Ubuntu 10.10? #
  • Playing around with #SlideRocket a bit. Very cool online presentation tool #
  • Being Understood Requires Context… When presenting, just giving the facts isn’t enough #
  • Been looking for an online project management tool. #Gantto seems pretty useful (still in beta) #
  • OER@UCT | Is the Lecture Dead? #
  • Are You Making These Dissertation Writing Mistakes? « To Do: Dissertation #
  • Just applied to participate in the Chrome OS netbook pilot program. B nice 2 c if online only, all the time is feasible #
  • Just confirmed my booking for camping at Monks Cowl next week, should be good times #
  • Having lunch at #Barrique fantastic food, beautiful setting, great service. I’m just saying… #
  • RT @roballen101: RT @whiteafrican – Shouldn’t these #ICTD conferences be held in emerging markets, not Europe and the US? #
  • RT @whiteafrican: Turns out there are very few ICT Research projects done by African institutions (9%), or by Africans at all. #ICTD2010 #
  • Thought Leader » Jennifer Thorpe » The medical mutilation of women’s rights via @mailandguardian #
  • Tech Leader » Wesley Lynch » E-books: Publishing on the eve of a revolution #
  • How 10 Year Olds Explain Cloud Computing – ReadWriteCloud “How big is it? How big do you want it to be?” #
  • Thought Leader » Christmas is sick! I have to agree with most of this. Comments are worth a read too #
  • Cellphones in the Classroom: Distraction or Tool? #
  • RT @wesleylynch: RT @spillly: When I see someone write a word like Twitterverse or Twitteriffic, I Twow up in my mouth a little #
  • Just voted for HootSuite for Best Social Media Management Tool #MashableAwards #
  • RT @newsfromtengrrl: Blind Students Demand Access to Online Course Materials – The Chronicle of Higher Education #