Monthly Archives: February 2005

How Do Books Work? A Conversation with Mom

My mother, a veteran kindergarten teacher, who, over the last 30 years, has taught scores of children to read, recently engaged me in an interesting conversation regarding the ebook vs. the paper book. She was responding to something I posted a few months ago called: Children and Books: Forming a World-view. She was particularly interested in this passage:
images.jpgMy son is 14 months old and he loves books. That is because his grandmother sat down with him when he was six months old and patiently read to him. She is a kindergarten teacher, so she is skilled at reading to children. She can do funny voices and such. My son doesn’t know how to read, he barely has a notion of what story is, but his grandmother taught him that when you open a book and turn its pages, something magical happens–characters, voices, colors–I think this has given him a vague sense of how meaning is constructed. My son understands books as objects printed with symbols that can be translated and brought to life by a skilled reader. He likes to sit and turn the pages of his books and study the images. He has a relationship with books, but he wouldn’t have that if someone hadn’t taught him. My point is, even after you learn to read, the book is still part of a complex system of relationships. It is almost a matter of chance, in some ways, which books are introduced to you and opened to you by someone.
Hi Kim,
I was really touched by the comments about Aidan and me. I truly believe that a child’s first experiences with books (even before he/she can read) are vital to his/her enjoyment of them in later life. I would like to add to your observations about books being intertwined with experiences and how I see very young children learning to love literature.
Much research has been done on how and why children want to learn to read. We know that the single most important thing that parents can do to make an avid reader of their child, is to read to them. We also know that, for most children, it takes approximately 700 to 1000 hours of lap/read time to have them ready to read. That sounds like a great deal of time, but if you put your child in your lap from the time they are 6 months old until they are 5, that is about 3 minutes a day. If you are holding your child close to you and together you read a colorful, well-written and illustrated children’s book, 3 minutes will disappear very quickly. I cannot imagine any 6 month old interested in a book written in a machine. YES, they would be interested in the machine, but the book (the story and the beautiful illustrations) would be lost to the small child. Because–the biggest part of the reading experience for a small child is being able to participate by holding the book themselves, turning the pages, pointing at the pictures, going back to the pages that they most enjoyed, in other words interacting with a handheld book. A machine will not offer this opportunity.
When children come to my preschool/kindergarten classroom the ones who have had many experiences with books have a wealth of background and knowledge that others do not have. Even if they do not read, when they are given the initial literacy exam they have learned by experience how to hold a book, which is the front versus the back, where do you start reading, what’s wrong with this picture? Etc., etc., etc.
Perhaps, I am jumping too far ahead in assuming that all, even children’s books will ultimately be on machines. If this is to be the case, it will DRASTICALLY change the way children are taught to read and how early experiences prepare them for this task.
Thanks mom, this is great. It brought up a few questions, I wonder if you can address them. I agree that the nurturing aspect of reading to a child is most important, but if the child is sitting in my lap while we look at a book on the computer screen, how will the experience be different? Also, I’m trying to understand why paper books are better than screen-based books, if the book progresses by clicking a mouse or touching the screen, why would those actions be less developmentally useful than page turning? Also, why wouldn’t a 6 month old be interested in a screen-based book? Aidan was mesmerized by the baby einstein videos, those are screen-based. When I play dvds on my laptop machine he screams because he wants to touch the keys and I have to restrain him. He loves pushing buttons, clicking my mouse and touching the screen. It seems like these are skills that he will have to learn in this computer-driven world, why not link computers with reading/nurturing/sitting in mom’s lap, etc., from an early age?
Hi Kim,
These are excellent questions and I do not know how to answer them, as no research has been done in that area. (Great place for Ph.D. research, or for another year of grant money.) You are right, a small child is mesmerized by things they see on the TV and on the computer screen. If you, the parent, is holding the child, perhaps the child would get the same nurturing experiences with the book machine as with a hand held book. I have only had experiences and read research about the hand held book, this is a whole new arena. I do agree that young children of this generation will have to have extensive technological knowledge and why not start it early. My kindergartners went to the computer lab once a week for 45 minutes and most of them were totally computer savvy and those that were not caught on quickly, as they are not afraid to experiment. As to the point that pushing a button is as developmentally appropriate as the skill of turning a page, they are very different skills, but if books are to be in ibooks, turning a page will not be a skill that young children need. Basically this is all uncharted territory and these questions are exactly what “the future of the book” should be asking. Bravo!

harnessing the collective mind: the ultimate networked book

Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart, who invented the computer mouse and is also credited with pioneering online computing and e-mail, advocates networked books as tools for building what he calls a “dynamic knowledge repository. This would be a place,” Engelbart said, in a recent interview with K. Oanh Ha at Mercury News, “where you can put all different thoughts together that represents the best human understanding of a situation. It would be a well-formed argument. You can see the structure of the argument, people’s assertions on both sides and their proof. This would all be knit together. You could use it for any number of problems. Wikipedia is something similar to it.”
How to conceptualize, organize, build, and use a “book” of that scale, is the project of Engelbart’s Bootstrap Institute. In the “Reasons for Action” section of their website, Engelbart gives his perception of why we need such a book. It reads as follows:
• Our world is a complex place with urgent problems of a global scale.
• The rate, scale, and complex nature of change is unprecedented and beyond the capability of any one person, organization, or even nation to comprehend and respond to.
• Challenges of an exponential scale require an evolutionary coping strategy of a commensurate scale at a cooperative cross-disciplinary, international, cross-cultural level.
• We need a new, co-evolutionary environment capable of handling simultaneous complex social, technical, and economic changes at an appropriate rate and scale.
• The grand challenge is to boost the collective IQ* of organizations and of society. A successful effort brings about an improved capacity for addressing any other grand challenge.
• The improvements gained and applied in their own pursuit will accelerate the improvement of collective IQ. This is a bootstrapping strategy.
• Those organizations, communities, institutions, and nations that successfully bootstrap their collective IQ will achieve the highest levels of performance and success.
“Towards High-Performance Organizations: A Strategic Role for Groupware,” a paper written by Dr. Engelbart in 1992, outlines practical ideas for the architecture of this vast and comprehensive networked book.
All of this is meaty food for thought with regards to our ongoing thread “the networked book.” I am wondering what blog readers think about this? Assuming it becomes possible to collect, map, and analyze the thoughts and opinions of a large community, will it really be to our advantage? Will it necessarily lead to solving the complex problems that Dr. Engelbart speaks of, or will the grand group-think lead to certain dystopian outcomes which may, perhaps, cancel out its IQ-raising value?

non, merci

Jean-Noel Jeanneney, the head of France’s national library (BNF), has raised a “battle cry” (Le Figaro) against the cultural and linguistic imperialism of America. But this time, it’s not about Big Macs and slang coming to massacre the French langauge. It’s about Google and its plans to digitize libraries, which, Jeanneney says, will put a distinctly anglo stamp on the greater part of the world’s knowledge (Reuters). Encouraging Europe to take part in this massive project seems like a good idea – for the sake of diversity, but more important, to offer a possible alternative to Google’s approach, which was devised in the absence of any real competition. Google Print‘s interface is limited to a snapshot tour of a book, with minimal search capabilities. They’re essentially doing for books what A9 is doing for streets, with souped-up scanners instead of trucks with camera mounts. It’s a browsing tool and not much more.
Google’s stock is soaring not only because it is a great engine, but also because it has pioneered a new kind of search-based advertising. There’s been a lot of high-minded conjecture (e.g.) as to what Google Print might mean for humanity – rhapsodic allusions to Borges and the library of Alexandria. But the great global library of our dreams probably won’t be created by Google. You could say that we are all creating it, that the web is that library. But without getting too breathless, think of the fact that with each passing year we move further and further into a paperless world. We will need well-designed electronic books in a well-designed electronic library, or matrix of libraries. So it’s heartening that a serious institution like BNF wants to get in on the game. Maybe they can do better. A good indication that they could is their recently announced project (sorry, only French link) to build a free online archive of 130 years of French newspapers and periodicals – 29 publications in total, running from 1814 to 1944. But then again, perhaps they simply want to secure a place in Google’s illustrious coalition of the willing: Harvard, Oxford, U. of Michigan, Stanford, and the New York Public Library.


Bibliothè que Nationale de France

paperback ebook

oldboy.jpg Booktopia, a Korean ebook developer, is introducing a 29-title series for mobile users based on popular movie scenarios (article), including the recent Cannes hit Old Boy (thanks, The books act as supplements to the films, with omitted material and glimpses behind-the-scenes, sort of like special features on a DVD (though it appears that they will be text-only). They also seem to riff on that weird tie-in genre of books adapted from the screen (I’ve always wondered who reads those books..).
So are phones the electronic book in embryo? If you are looking for innovation in form, what’s happening on cell phones and mobile devices is far more interesting than what you’ll find in the area of conventional “ebooks,” which generally are the kind of pdf nightmare Dan decribes in his post yesterday. But so far, these kinds of mobile books, or mbooks, are to literature what ring tones are to music. The cell phone has become a kind of cud for the distracted brain to chew – I can’t count how many people I see on the subway or waiting in lines simply fiddling with their phone settings. What seems to be developing on cell phones is a new kind of ephemera descended from the pamphlet, flyer, or broadsheet, which will be tightly interwoven with advertising (these Korean movie tie-ins do leg work for the actual films, just as the new 24 spinoff offered on Verizon plugs the Fox television series). But what about actual books? Serious reading to counterbalance all the fluff. Portable devices like phones and palm pilots lend themselves to the serial model. Their diminutive size makes them better suited to smaller chunks of material, and their access to networks allows them to constantly grab new chunks. But I don’t see why quality has to be sacrificed. Perhaps, with time, the tradition of serialized narrative will be reinvented in meaningful ways. Many of Dickens’s novels were published and written serially, and he was able to modulate the course of his writing according to reader response and sales. Digital content delivery over cell phones and the web could employ the same fluidity, delivering the book as it is becoming, and creating whole communities of readers on the web (see earlier post elegant map hack). An interesting prospect for writers as well as readers.
paperback ebook.JPG These literary experiments on the tiny screen are probably not trivial, even though the content may be. They seem to be saying “hurry up” to our more sophisticated but unwieldy reading devices like laptops and tablets. We need a kind of paperback ebook, in between a laptop and a smartphone – cheap and easy to tote. If I can comfortably read on this device in a crowded subway, then we might finally have something as handy as a paper book, conducive to any kind of content, with all the affordances of computers and the web. And ideally… I can write on it with a stylus, or on a keyboard that it projects on a tabletop, and I can dock it at a more powerful workstation in my office. I can plug in headphones or speakers and explore my music library, or surf satellite radio. I can watch a film that I made, or one that I downloaded, or I can flip through my photo album. If I’m lost, I can get a map with pictures of the place I’m trying to find. And at night, I can curl up with it in bed, reading by the light of its built-in candle. I may even have glasses I can plug in and read the book without hands, or look at images in 3-D like on a stereopticon. (Kim, I think I may have my fantasy ebook) Nothing could ever truly replace paper books for me, but a pan-media tablet – an everything device – might just become my everyday companion.

the form of the (electronic) book

Kembrew McLeod's Freedom of ExpressionBoing Boing points out that professor/prankster Kembrew McLeod has released an electronic version of his new book on copyright Freedom of Expression on his website. The electronic version is released with a Creative Commons license. McLeod’s book has not a little to do with what we’re working on at the Institute, so I quite happily downloaded the book – you can too! – and found myself with a 384-page PDF of the book. It’s indeed the whole book, almost exactly as Doubleday printed it, with the addition of a Creative Commons link on the first page. If you happen to know a book printer and some extra cash, you could send them this file and get a book back in a couple weeks. If you don’t have access to a print shop and extra cash but you do have 384 sheets of 8.5” x 11” paper & a fast laser printer, you could print it out yourself and have your own telephone-book sized stack of Freedom of Expression.

Of course you could fire up your PDF viewer and read it on the screen of your computer, which is probably what you were expecting to do. But that’s where the trouble starts.

small screenshot - click for a bigger versionWhile it’s certainly poor form to complain about what’s being given away for free, it’s a remarkably painful experience to try and read this book on your computer. In large part, this is because it’s not meant to be read on a screen. This PDF is the same file that Doubleday’s production staff sent to the printer – with crop marks and the QuarkXPress filename at the top of every page. Because there’s padding around the text so that it can be safely printed, you need to blow up the magnification to actually be able to read the text. There’s a great deal of wasted space you need to page through (click on the thumbnail at right for an example of how this looked in full-screen Adobe Acrobat on my computer). Because Doubleday’s making books in Quark with no thought to reusing or repurposing content, this file doesn’t have any of the niceties that a PDF could have – an interactive table of contents, for example, is useful in a three-hundred page book. Worse: while one of the great benefits of the Creative Commons license is that it allows users to quote and create derivative works from licensed material. It’s not as simple as you’d like to copy text out of a PDF.

From a design perspective, this is a disaster, and one for which I’ll blame the publishing company – this has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the book, merely the form. While it’s a decent-looking book in print, the printed page doesn’t work in the same way as the screen, and there’s been no accounting for this at all. We take for granted the physical book as an object, although it really is a quietly brilliant design, a perfect synthesis of form and function. When electronic books are presented to the public devoid of both, it’s little wonder they haven’t taken off. Nobody’s going to want to read a book on a screen unless it looks good on the screen. One might be forgiven for imagining that this is a publisher’s scheme to encourage people to buy the actual book.

big plans for the tiny screen

Late last week, Random House announced it was making the microlit plunge, acquiring a “significant minority stake” in wireless applications developer VOCEL (AP wire story).
Says Random House Ventures president Richard Sarnoff: “You have a whole generation of consumers, perhaps more than a generation, who are never more than 10 feet from their cell phones, including when they shower. Increasingly, cell phones are becoming an appliance for entertainment and education.”
But, despite the success of cell phone novels and serials in Japan, South Korea and Germany, Sarnoff insists that tiny screens have a potential for information, but not for narrative. “The screens are inappropriate for that kind of sustained reading. That’s a `maybe, someday’ discussion. We’ll keep an eye on that area, and if something happens … we’ll certainly respond.”
So for the time being, Random House will be testing mobile phones for language instruction, test prep, and other informational services.


In a related vein,, an invaluable resource for the microlit observer, recently posted about Radio Shack‘s plans to sell stand-alone virtual keyboard units the size of a “small fist.” Virtual keyboards project a regular-sized typing area on a flat surface, registering keystrokes via Bluetooth onto a smartphone or personal digital assistant (PDA). VKB, the developer of the technology, recently announced its goal of making the virtual keyboard an embedded feature in mobile devices by next year. Further suggestion that cell phones and laptops are evolving into one another.

building the cathedral: collaborative authorship and the internet

The World Wide Web is, quite possibly, the most collaborative multi-cultural project in the history of mankind. Millions of people have contributed personal homepages, blogs, and other sites to the growing body of human expression available online. It is, one could say, the secular equivalent of the medieval cathedral, designed by a professional, but constructed by non-professionals, regular folk who are eager to participate in the construction of a legacy. Such is the context for projects like Wikimedia and the Semantic Web, designed by elite programmers, built by the masses.
df083hereford-s.jpg One of the most pressing questions with regard to collaborative authorship is, can the content be trusted? Does the anonymous group author have the same authority as the credentialed single author? Is our belief in the quality of information inextricably connected to our belief in the authority of the writer? Wikimedia (the non-profit organization that initiated Wikipedia, Wikibooks,, Wiktionary, Wikinews, Wikisource, and Wikiquote) addresses these concerns by offering a new model for collaborative authorship and peer review. Wikipedia’s anonymously published articles undergo peer review via direct peer revision. All revisions are saved and linked; user actions are logged and reversible. “This type of constant editing,” Wikimedia co-director Angela Beesley alleges, “allows you to trust the content over time.” The ambition of Wikimedia is to create a neutral territory where, through open debate, consensus can be reached on even the most contentious topics. The Wikimedia authoring system sets up a democratic forum where contributors construct their own rulespace and policies emerge from consensus-based, rather than top-down, processes. So the authority of the Wikimedia collaborative book depends, in part, on a collective self-discipline that is defined by and enforced by the group.
The collaborative authoring environment engendered by the web will make even more ambitious and far-reaching projects possible. Projects like the Semantic Web, which aims to make all content searchable by allowing users to assign semantic meaning to their work, will organize the prodigious output of collaborative networks, and could, potentially, cast the entire web as a collaboratively authored “book.”

it’s mobisodic

24_conspiracy_banner.jpg Teaming up with Verizon V Cast, a new spinoff of the popular Fox series 24 is beginning a high profile push into the fledgeling market of serialized mobile video. The show, 24 Conspiracy, will be available to subscribers in 24 sixty-second “mobisodes.” This means the entire program is 24 minutes long – not much more than an extended commercial for Fox, and a gimmick for selling more expensive phones. But perhaps this could open the floodgates for longer, more varied programming for mobile users. If HBO wants to stay on the cutting edge, they should probably open up a mobile programming division. How long before John Grisham or Dan Brown writes the first big serial blockbuster for cell phones?
Also, story in today’s NY Times..

the web in the world

In ten years, the world wide web has become an indispensable fact of life. Where do we take it next? At the conference’s closing plenary session, Peter Lunenfeld asked a similar question: “What is the next big dream that will keep us going? Are we out of ideas?” He then offered something called “urban computing” as a possible answer.
Here is my attempt (rather long, I apologize) to jump on that dream…
I live in New York, and in the past few years I’ve observed a transformation. My neighborhood coffee shop looks like an advertisement for Apple. At any given time, no less than two thirds of the customers are glued to their laptops, with mugs of coffee steaming in perilous proximity. atlasmacs.jpg Power cords snake among the tables and plug into strips deployed around the cafe floor. Go to the counter and they’ll be happy to give you a dog-eared business card bearing the password to their wireless network. Of course, people have been toting around notebook computers since they first became available in the mid-80s, and they’ve certainly been no stranger to coffee shops. But with the introduction of Wi-Fi people are flocking in droves. Some kind of exodus has begun.
It’s a familiar sight throughout the more cosmopolitan neighborhoods of the city. Go to any Starbucks on the Upper West Side and you’re competing with half a dozen other customers for a space on their too-few powerstrips. And their Wi-Fi service isn’t even free. And come spring, I predict the same will occur in the city’s parks, especially those downtown, which are rapidly being integrated into a massive wireless infrastructure. No single entity is responsible for this, rather a lattice of different initiatives working toward a common goal: free high speed Wi-Fi coverage across Manhattan.
Mobile web and messaging technologies have already created a new breed of roving web users. Cell phones, PDAs, text messaging, Blue Tooth, RSS, podcasting (the list goes on..) have swept into our daily life like a tidal wave. More and more, we’re able to read, search, capture, edit, and send on the go, and with satellite-fed positioning technologies, we can pinpoint our location at any given time. What we have is the beginnings of a kind of “augmented reality” where information relates intimately to place, and vice versa. The world itself can now be as searchable, linkable, and informative as the web – a synthesis, or overlay, of real and virtual realities.
So the next big dream could be the evolution of the web into something more than a desktop system – into something that we can use while moving, and interact with anywhere.

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