Un-book

This year I received for Christmas the italian edition of “Mozart’s complete letters” by Marco Murara. The book is a gift from my wife who is a staunch paper supporter, and as she read the rant I posted on this blog complaining the book was not available in ebook format, we went into the inevitable argument about paper vs. bits which lead me to enumerate the ways in which a ebook is superior to a paper one.

Soon I realized I was focusing only on the mechanical side (lightweight, carry many books on the same device, lower cost) without challenging the very nature of the book itself. In other words, can technology re-define the book? And what will it look like? And BTW, can we stop calling it a book – much in the way cinema did not call anymore its pieces “plays” as theaters did, but “films” or “movies”?

I want to take an example which I mention in the post, i.e. the short essay on the Don Giovanni by Massimo Mila (which, by the way, also exists in Kindle format). It is a truly awesome book by someone who is an incredible expert and can “read” the opera on so many levels, and I have read it two or three times; last time I had the musical score open, and a DVD with the opera playing and yet I was not able to follow everything or synch the three sources. Not to mention for example comparing this singer performance to another one, this director to another etc. And of course I was unable to draw upon other sources I did not know about. Come to think, I am not aware of ANY ebooks that are truly Unbooks, but until such a time as someone shows in concrete terms the quantum leap from the book to the Unbook, the concept will remain, well… a concept.

I have chosen the text by Mila because music is an obvious multimedia candidate and because I just love the Don Giovanni.What you see below is a screen mock-up: as you read the text, the video window “hooks up” the appropriate bit of movie, and the score window moves in synch with the movie.

Mock-up of music related un-book

The fourth window is a web browser showing a curated list of links that are relevant to the book’ content: these could be YouTube videos, Wikipedia pages, discussion forums on the same subjects and so on. Tapping any of the windows would open it up for easier consumption, making the others smaller.

Finally the Unbook is a sort of “docking station” where you could add “widgets” that either the publisher or third party application developers would make available: interesting widgets could be live twitter streams from curated lists of topical experts and celebrities, or RSS feeds from web or news topical searches…

This Unbook would therefore be something radically different from a book, and while it comes the person buying it with a predefined, curated set of connections, applications and content, each reader enriches in his/her own way and therefore my Unbook would be different from your Unbook of the same title, as the Internets are a little bit different every time you visit them.

This would also be a much richer product which would obviously sell at a premium price over “regular” books.

UPDATE

The above has been sitting as a Draft since january this year. The reason I moved it to Publish is because I donwloaded the TEDBooks app from TED which addresses some of the features I was referencing in the post, marking maybe a time book publishers move from denial (“this is NOT happening”) to fight (“I can stop this from happening”) to collaboration (“since it’s happening, maybe I can use it to my advantage”).

The inline additional content is well-rendered and multimedia content is well-integrated. I do not like the frame switching when moving from text to anything else, but maybe it is a technical necessity.

While a step in the right direction, TEDBooks fall short IMHO (at least those I could browse) in opening up the book to a world of other, related content, i.e. do not break the strictly Author / Reader hirarchical relationship and, but I am ventuirng on thin ice here, as I do not know the technical specs of TEDBooks, does not allow true contemporaneous multimediality, a concept our children are mastering much better than us, sequential creatures.

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