At the Unbound: Speculations on the Future of the Book conference held on May 3-4 at MIT there was no handwringing by publishers or booksellers, in this case mostly rare booksellers, over print book sales or discussion of the DoJ lawsuit. Instead the symposium, organized by two postdoctoral fellows in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT, Amaranth Borsuk and Gretchen E. Henderson, lingered most on what forms the book might take.
The answer varied from Christian Bök’s The Xenotext, an attempt to genetically engineer a bacterium to store a poem in its genome, to Nick Montfort’s computational poem, 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, a one-line Commodore 64 BASIC program, to Bob Stein’s SocialBook, a post-print publishing platform that allows users to share comments and drawings on books and articles read in Web browsers.
James Reid-Cunningham, associate director for digital programs and preservation at the Boston Athenaeum, a private membership library, was the only speaker to proclaim the book dead, specifically the reference book. “Books that carry data will be dead; the phone book is already dead,” he said, and drew parallels to other “dead” technologies like the daguerreotype. Digitization may be replacing the codex, but one form that Reid-Cunningham thinks may be a future of the book is art books, which are in and of themselves works of art.
In looking at reshaping the book, Gita Manaktala, editorial director of the MIT Press, the only traditional publisher on the roster, discussed the difficulties faced by scholarly presses. “Our authors live in a wiki world, where knowledge is produced quickly,” she said. Yet publishers have to figure out what content should be preserved. She also discussed the need for alternatives to peer reviews given that today’s authors put up content and solicit comments as they prepare their manuscripts.
Stein suggested that Manaktala use SocialBook, which is currently in beta, and invited her and all 240 attendees to sign up by e-mailing him at email@example.com. The idea behind the platform, he explained, is that a book becomes a place where readers and authors can gather. “Google Docs, wikis, they’re great at letting you change the text. They’ve grafted social awkwardly on top of it. For us,” said Stein, “social is not a pizza topping, it’s the cornerstone of reading and writing.”
Founded in 2010, SocialBook continues to evolve. Although it only works on the Safari and Chrome browsers and can’t import PDFs, Stein expects all that to change very soon. He’s also planning to add “glosses,” where people can find extensive notes on the books or articles in SocialBook. He envisions a math book, which might come with 20-hours of tutoring. “We don’t need to succeed in one year or two years,” said Stein. “I say give us ten years. We will better Amazon.”
Bök, associate professor of English at the University of Calgary, whose works include books built out of Rubik’s cubes and Lego bricks, said that he was drawn to creating a poem in DNA, because “I’m trying to be a 21st-century poet. And I have to speak to the socio-technological milieu. Poetry doesn’t respond well to the language of science.” Last year it seemed as if he had succeeded in his quest to write a poem in English, inject it in a bacterium, which would then translate it into a new poem. But almost immediately scientists detected that the bacterium had edited the poem and pared it in half. He has no intention of giving up, “I’m all in,” he said, however long it takes.
Other books involve patterns and are more closely related to computer programs or video. Kate Layles, professor of literature and codirector of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University, played snippets from David Clark’s net.art piece, 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (to be played with the Left Hand), in which he retells Wittgenstein’s life using using video of seemingly random data. Montfort called the line of code, written by Bill Gates, that comprises 10 PRINT,as the forerunner of e-books. “If people hadn’t done anything like this,” he said, “no one would have thought of e-books.”
If some of the projects demonstrated stretched the traditional definitions of the book, those at the conference’s accompanying book fair did the same. Among those that stood out were Natalie Freed’s Telescrapbook, which relies on stickers and electronic writing to enable a pair of books to talk with each other. One book lights up when the pages of the other turns, and the books are sensitive to light and dark. Angela Chang demonstrated TinkerStories, an app that she developed, which is already being used on One Laptop Per Child in Ethiopia. It is based on her research on what parents do to teach young children pre-reading skills and is intended to let children learn those same skills by using it on their own on a tablet computer.