The cornerstone of digital books

— June, 2010

There's a great post over at 1 evoking the ghost of a time-traveling David Foster Wallace, commenting on Facetime for the iPhone from back in the '90s. But Facetime's usefulness debate is for another post. The point on which I want to comment comes at the end, and you'll miss it if you've yet to have your morning yerba mate. After reproducing several paragraphs from Infinite Jest, Kottke finishes with:

Those are only excerpts ... you can read more on pp. 144-151 of Infinite Jest.

Oh, page 144? Great — let me just grab ... which edition was that?

Wouldn't it be great if we had some, oh — I don't know — *online* edition of Infinite Jest to reference? Wouldn't it be amazing if someone turned the physical edition of IJ into a digital edition?

Of course, I'm being facetious — there's a perfectly good digital version of Infinite Jest available for the Kindle.2 And even one for iBooks. And heck, with the late Mr. Wallace's penchant for footnotes and lexicography, having a built in dictionary and hyperlinked references makes digital a nearly ideal platform for a book like this.

So when a blogger — and Infinite Jest fanatic — wants to point out something he or she loves in the book, and that book has a digital edition, is it not mad that the digital text isn't 'publicly' referable?

Openness is a big part of the discussion behind books in HTML5.3 Not openness in terms of 'free' books, but openness as books being free from the referenceability prisons of eReaders. Which is not to say that applications like Kindle or iBooks shouldn't exist, or that the only way to do books is in HTML. But, one might go so far as to say that having a strong HTML based, publicly referable edition of a book is the cornerstone of a strong digital edition.

Again — just to be perfectly clear — this doesn't implicitly mean free-as-in-beer books. It requires very little imagination to come up with an open but metered system for reading books in HTML — not unlike what the New York Times is planning on doing next year with their newspaper.4 The system would allow anyone to link to any piece of a book, and allow those who visit the book to read 10 or 20 pages before saying, "Hey, maybe you'd like to buy this?" This is part of what I mean when I talk about "life outside eReaders."5

A standup guy like Kottke has a legion of erudite, handsome, well read followers. When he tells those readers to check something out, I bet a few percentage of them would actually throw-down cash for a digital edition right then and there. Contingent on a convenient purchasing system being in place, of course.

Amazon and Google are working on systems of this very nature. Amazon has their "look inside the book" functionality which allows for, if not referencing, at least partial metered browsing of books. It's barely a hop between what they have now and what I describe — especially as integrated with Kindle editions. And Google Books 6 already has a system that lets you link to specific pages in scanned editions of books either out of copyright or given the Google Books greenlight by their publisher. 8 We're all itching to see what Google Editions has in store for us — but I'm pretty sure it's the precise opposite of less open books. 7

The question isn't how long until? but when? are we going to emerge from these dark ages of digital text. Currently our digital books are locked in precious little cabinets, untouchable like some bubble boy or Grant's tumor 9 — or maybe it's more like a damp dungeon where every now and then they're allowed to be read by one person, and one person only. Bit by bit, digital Stephen Kings and David Foster Wallaces are chipping away behind their own Rita Hayworths (I like to imagine the whole scenario as a Tron where everyone's a digital book and thus nearsighted and without athletic prowess). And it's probably not much longer until we stop saying, "on page 144" and start saying, "right over here."

  2. Infinite Jest on Kindle
  3. An Open, Webby, Book-Publishing Platform
  4. NYTimes Metered Reading
  5. Life outside the eReader
  6. Google Books
  7. About Google Editions
  8. Read all of Kuhaku
  9. Tumors!


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