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Adam Penenberg

Adam Penenberg

Posted: October 9, 2009 09:34 AM

It's the End of the Book as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

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I call my five-year-old daughter "my entertainment on demand girl." When we put on a DVD she always wants to skip to her favorite scenes. If a commercial comes on TV, she begs me to fast-forward through it. Right after I shoot video she cries, "Let me see!" until I show her, but if I dust off our old 35 mm film camera she doesn't understand why we can't view the images immediately.

As a kid, I knew that consuming entertainment meant waiting, sometimes months, or a year, for movies like The Wizard of Oz to air on TV (and if you missed it, you missed it), or weeks for a roll of film to fill up so we could take it in to be developed--then more waiting for the photos. We considered Polaroid a miracle of technology because you could snap a picture, wait 60 seconds, then peel the paper off, hoping you didn't end up with a gooey mess.

What does this have to do with books? Plenty. Our childhood experiences shape our expectations later in life, and whole generations are growing up with the expectation that entertainment will be available whenever they want it, wherever they are. This will have a profound effect on... everything, including books. While we've witnessed the digital tsunami plowing under the music industry and news business -- and lapping at the shores of TV, movies and radio -- books, until recently, have been largely sheltered. The fact that publishers have always charged for their product (unlike, say, newspapers and magazines) has shielded them from double-digit losses plaguing ad-based businesses. It also helps that piracy hasn't made significant inroads because not many people read whole books onscreen. Yet.

The Amazon Kindle offers a glimmer of what's to come, and if things continue as they have e-books will force most books out of print and on to the screen. This is perhaps little comfort to those who like nothing more than to curl up in bed with a good hardcover, reveling in the heft of pages and binder in their hands, even the musty smell, which, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos points out, is really just old glue and mildew.

E-books, however, won't be read on today's Kindle, with its cramped black-and-white screen (reminiscent of a Mac laptop circa 1993), its clumsy, nippled navigation and uninspiring interface. New technologies tend to mirror those that precede them. In World War I the first tanks were tractors with cannons bolted to the side. Early automobiles were called "horseless carriages" for a reason, and 75 years ago Amelia Earhart flew a plane made of little more than wood, canvas, and bailing wire. When newspapers migrated to the Web, they repurposed articles from print. Now The New York Times is awash in multimedia, blogs and databases unavailable in the daily paper. With microprocessors and screens improving at a Moore's Law clip, the e-book reader will undergo a similar transformation, integrated into tablet-like multimedia devices boasting eye-friendly multitouch screens and providing immersive viewing experiences. (As for me, I'm betting on Apple to swoop in and grab much of Kindle's e-book market share.)

Think of the possibilities. Say you were reading a biography of Amelia Earhart. In addition to the actual text-y "book," you could link to video and radio interviews with the almost mythic aviatrix, watch newsreel footage, study maps of her journeys and the schematics of her plane, access interviews with aviation historians, and read newspaper and magazine articles covering her life and death. You could sample music from the early to mid-1930s--maybe download the songs from an online retailer--purchase memorabilia on eBay, sift through photos, link to primary sources given as footnotes, and engage a social network of other aviation buffs, who might debate the various theories surrounding her death. There could be multiplayer games based on the book, a Facebook (or equivalent) app that tells you how adventurous you are on a scale of 1 to 10 next to Amelia Earhart, a mobile phone application coded in her honor that compares the safety records of airlines.

Books then would be multimedia events far more engaging than mere words on a page, and the reader would control how he or she consumed them.

It's the ultimate entertainment on demand.

[Take a look at Adam's new book, Viral Loop, out next week.]

Follow Adam Penenberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@Penenberg