When Ebooks Are the Only Books

When Ebooks Are the Only Books

First published in LOGOS: The Journal of the World Book Community, Volume 21, Numbers 3-4, 2010 , pp. 123-132.

The Coming Age of Ebooks

The Kindle is popular.  Amazon doesn’t release any useful sales figures, so we have no hard data.  But on my daily commute on Boston’s subway system, I usually see several people reading on their Kindles.  Add in the ebook readers released by Sony, Barnes & Noble and other manufacturers, Apple’s iPads, iPhones and the many Android smartphones, it certainly seems that more and more people are doing their reading in the form of ebooks.

When technology changes our habits, it rarely does so by putting up a neon sign blinking the words THE FUTURE IS HERE.  It simply takes over gradually, from one day to the next, without anyone realizing that it’s happening. Can you remember the exact day when you stopped writing letters and switched to using only email?  It will be the same with ebooks.

The transition from paper books to ebooks won’t happen overnight, and we won’t be able to pinpoint exactly when we stop buying paper books – in fact, we may continue to buy a small number of paper books indefinitely into the future, just as we still write real letters instead of emails once in a while, but I agree with those who believe that ebooks will replace paper books as the main form in which we read within a few years.[1]

For book lovers, this is an exciting time, and more than a little scary.  What aspects of paper books will survive the transition to ebooks?  Which aspects will not?  How will these changes affect the future of reading?  And of writing?

There aren’t any clear answers (yet), but one of the benefits of a technological shift is to allow us to see more clearly those features (and limitations) of old technologies that have been taken for granted.

For example, the transition to email from handwritten letters gave us an opportunity to reflect on what features of the handwritten letter were useful, interesting, and absent in the new form: the ease of inserting doodles and diagrams, the simplicity of writing in multiple languages without worrying about “encodings,” the richness of what we can express when we are not limited to digital text, the sense of personal connection between the writer and the reader.  But it also allowed us to realize how limiting letter writing was, how the ability to send mail immediately and without cost would transform our communication patterns.

Ultimately, new technologies succeed because they bring advantages that we could not even conceive of under the old technologies, but some of the benefits of the old technologies will never be replicated in the new (and that is why we still sometimes, if rarely, write letters).  A technological shift is never costless, and we should evaluate, carefully, what features we love about the old and how best we can transfer them to the new.  But we should also think about how we may have been constrained by the old technologies and unnecessarily cabined our imaginations.  A slavish imitation of the old in the new is rarely the best course.

As a starting point, it may be helpful to separate the abstract concept of a book – a collection of written material – from its container: a bamboo scroll,[2] a parchment codex, a paperback, or a smartphone running an ebook reading application.  Though a book like The Gospel According to John can exist in any of these containers, the container also changes and influences how we interact with and think about the book.

For example, compared to the scroll, the codex is far easier to transport, allows “random access” to any section, and is far more economical in its use of space for text (not the least because it can make use of both sides of each page).  It is hard to even imagine how reference works like dictionaries would be useful in the way we think of them without the capacity for random access to any section.  These advantages of the codex probably accelerated its adoption over the scroll in the West during the first centuries of the first millennium AD.[3]

Similarly, in China, the popularity of poetry composition among the literati during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) may have driven the wide adoption of “whirlwind binding,” a transition format between the scroll and the codex that was made from a stack of long rectangular pages bound together at one end and then rolled up like a scroll, in the production of rhyme dictionaries and other reference works.[4]  The same text, arranged differently on a scroll versus a codex, gives rise to different ways of reading.

From the Codex to the Ebook

But back to the present.  Right now, we are in a transition stage, and most ebook makers devote the bulk of their energy to making ebooks copy the appearance of the codex.  The fact that ebooks are trying so hard to imitate paper books and the expectation of readers that ebooks be perfect imitations have caused ebooks to appear to be inferior to paper books in many ways.

Such imitations are sometimes comically slavish and useless, as when Apple’s iBooks app includes graphics and animations meant to evoke the stack of unread pages in a paper book and the turning of a paper page.  These superfluous gestures will likely soon fall by the wayside.

Some of the limitations of the current generation of ebooks seem to be mere temporary constraints due to the immaturity of the technology, and will be resolved in time as the technology improves.  Charts and photographs in ebooks are grainy, low-resolution, sometimes to the point of illegibility.  But it’s hard to imagine such problems persisting in ten years given the pace of improvement in display technology.[5]  Similarly, most ebooks fail to display footnotes and endnotes next to the main text to which they are linked, which unfortunately makes them less useful than they are in traditional codex form.[6]  But this again seems like a temporary interface issue that is not difficult to resolve.  As yet another example, most ebooks fail to replicate the careful typographical design of their physical counterparts and make all books “look the same” by rendering their text with a few built-in typefaces.  But over time, as markup languages and rendering engines improve, there’s no reason that a sophisticated design language cannot emerge for ebooks, just as it has for the Web.[7]

Other problems with current ebooks may require more radical technological jumps.  For instance, many ebooks lack a useful index.  Amazon’s Kindle often reproduces the index of a paper book in electronic form, but the page numbers in the index are meaningless since the Kindle uses abstract “location numbers” in place of page numbers to accommodate the possibility of changing font sizes. 

A plain text search, which most ebook readers provide, is not an adequate replacement for an index designed by an expert because an index is not merely a catalog of where particular terms have appeared.  A good index also represents an editor’s judgment as to what terms and phrases may be relevant for a reader, takes into account synonyms, and arranges related concepts into a sensible hierarchy.  For example, an index to a law book may well contain the term “home mortgage interest deduction” and provide useful references even though that is not the technical phrase used in the tax code and does not appear in the book. 

In the short term, replacing meaningless page numbers with location numbers in the book-to-ebook conversion process will solve the problem to some extent.  But in the long term, a far better solution would be to replace the judgment and understanding of an expert index maker with software endowed with domain-specific intelligence, which will allow “smart searches” to instantly generate indices that are far more comprehensive and useful than is currently possible.

Another set of problems with current ebooks are not, strictly speaking, technological limitations, but matters of convention.  The lack of uniform page numbers in ebooks makes it difficult to refer to material in academic writing, but surely the ebook makers will eventually agree on a system of reference similar to the Kindle’s “location numbers,” and we can all agree to use them instead. 

Paper books are also bound up with social rituals in which ebooks simply cannot take part.  For example, many readers have enjoyed the experience of attending book signings by favorite authors.  With ebooks, what is the author supposed to sign?  Along the same lines, some of us enjoy discovering what other people are reading (and making judgments about them) in cafes and on subways by looking at the covers of the books they carry, and some of us enjoy broadcasting our erudition and taste through the books we carry.  Ebooks, being without covers, cannot serve this signaling function.[8]  Will a second screen or something similar evolve to take its place?  Only time will tell.

Similarly, undue concern over copyright has caused ebooks to be less useful socially than paper books.  Introducing new authors and ideas to friends by lending books is as old as the history of reading.  But this is practically impossible with ebooks.[9]  As well, selling used books, giving them away, or leaving them in airports and other public spaces for other readers to enjoy – all community-enriching reading practices sanctioned by long usage and habit – have been made impossible by the Orwellian phrase “digital rights management.”  One would hope that over time, such artificial restrictions on the possibilities of technology will be lifted, and ebooks can be lent, re-sold, and given away at least as easily as paper books.

Paper books, as artifacts of a particular time and place, have qualities beyond their text that make them interesting, and these qualities seem unlikely to be replicated in ebooks.  Old books, in their material, printing, design, art, and marginalia, capture something about their owners and their times.  An old book passed on from our grandparents and parents has meaning far beyond what’s printed in it.  Ebooks, however, are nothing but electronic text, and ebook readers are constructed with the disposable mindset of consumer electronics.  It is doubtful if the practice of passing on a meaningful artifact in the form of a well-loved book will survive into the age of ebooks.[10]

Yet another feature that ebooks lack as compared to paper books is the ability to browse and discover them by their physical arrangement in a library, bookstore, or a friend’s home.  Our arrangement and display of books along bookshelves are idiosyncratic and visceral ways of organizing knowledge and experience.  Books shelved next to each other are related to each other, and speak to each other, in some way, and many of us have discovered books that we would never have known about by browsing at random in aisles and rooms full of books. 

We have not been able to find an effective means to replicate this feature in ebook stores.  Various mechanisms for allowing people to discover books – social recommendation systems, ratings, searching, listing by genre, listing by popularity, etc. – have not been able to recreate the serendipitous joy of browsing bookshelves, and may never do so.  But our nostalgia for this loss must be somewhat tempered by the fact that with the advent of Amazon and other online book sellers and the concomitant decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores, we, as a society, have already gradually grown used to doing without the pleasure of random book browsing over the years.

Nostalgia aside, a more serious concern is how ebooks will hinder research and thinking by making it more difficult to compare multiple books side-by-side.  With paper books, the display real estate is essentially unlimited.  To compare two passages from two books, the reader simply opens two books and places them side by side.  To compare or refer to more books, the reader just needs more desk space.[11]  The ability to view passages from multiple books simultaneously may be essential for critical thinking and research.[12]  Certainly this was the view of Thomas Jefferson, who invented a revolving bookstand, still on display at Monticello today, which allowed him to keep multiple books open for simultaneous perusal and reference.

The ability to “grow” the display real estate as the need arises is absent from ebooks.  Ebook readers present one and only one screen, and can thus display one and one “page” of text at a time.  Although the commentary on the potential for ebooks to revolutionize education has been enthusiastic, I have seen no discussion of this critical disadvantage of ebooks as compared to paper books.  No one seems to have paid much attention to the problem, much less thought about how to solve it.[13]  I will come back to this issue again later.

Finally, there are concerns about the future of public libraries and the social and intellectual commitment that they represent: making more books available for perusal by everyone, including those who cannot afford to buy all the books they want to read.  Let me be clear, all of us belong to the class of people who cannot afford to buy all the books that we want to read.  To research a subject, it is frequently necessary to consult multiple sources in a library, and forcing everyone to buy all the books on a subject when they might need to only satisfy their curiosity by consulting a few pages from each is both unrealistic and bad policy, even if publishers may welcome such a dystopia.  Until ebook readers are so cheap and abundant that they can be given away, we agree upon a common ebook file format, and reader-hostile “digital rights management” is made more sensible, the transition to ebooks from paper books may well represent a step backwards in this arena.

Ebooks: the Future

So far, I’ve focused on the inadequacies of ebooks.  But of course ebooks also offer compelling advantages, most of which are still nascent in their current form.  Many of these advantages will only make themselves obvious when ebooks stop imitating paper books.  Perhaps not all of the promises of ebooks imagined by us will come true, but the possibilities are inspiring.

I’ll start by briefly recapping some of the most-discussed advantages of ebooks, even in their current limited form.

Portability: Ebooks improve the advantage of the codex over the scroll in portability by another several orders of magnitude.  Ebooks, essentially text files, take up much less space in electronic storage than images, music files, or videos.  Thousands of books can fit on a Kindle, and you can carry an entire library on a device weighing less than 8.5 ounces.  It is far easier to have all the works of Shakespeare at your fingertips than carrying the physical volume of The Riverside Shakespeare.  You can read several books at once, and know that you’ll always have them with you everywhere you go, allowing you to choose the one that fits your current level of attention and mood.  And as much as we enjoy looking at our books on our shelves, our friends will appreciate ebooks when they come to help us move to our new houses.

Availability: Ebooks (with wireless capabilities) allow access to any book (that’s available in an electronic edition) at any time.  No longer do you have to walk to a library or a bookstore to look up a specific quote or check out a new author.  You can get books at anytime from anywhere.  The promise of this advance has not yet been fully realized.  In theory, one day you should be able to get a book published anywhere, in any language, instantaneously, without waiting for the slow and expensive shipment of paper books on container ships.  Bits are far more flexible and cheap to move than atoms.  Of course, the full realization of that vision depends on changing current book distribution models (and the prohibitive costs of cross-border licensing), under which the distribution of books across borders have lagged far behind the international migration of people and everyone’s growing interest in other cultures.

Accessibility: Ebooks obsolete the need for special editions made for readers with visual impairment by giving the reader control over typeface, font size, and the contrast and color of background and text.  Some ebook devices also include the option to read the text aloud – helpful for blind readers and those who are engaged in some other task that occupies their eyes.[14]

Search: Ebooks allow digital processing of text that should be a boon for researchers and readers.  With instant search, concordances across multiple books can be produced in the blink of an eye.  No longer will you have to flip through the earlier pages of a novel to search for the first appearance of a character that you’ve forgotten.

Indeed, just as ease of search in reference books may have led the way in the adoption of the codex over the scroll in China, ease of search is now leading the way in the adoption of ebooks.  The Oxford University Press has said that the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary may never appear in print format, due to the quick adoption and preference by users for electronic formats.[15]

But far more exciting are more daring visions of the future of ebooks.

Social reading: Just as the Web socialized news – the Web sites of newspapers and blogs both thrive on reader comments – ebooks hold the promise to do something similar for books.  Amazon has given us a glimpse of the possibilities with the Kindle’s “Popular Highlights” feature.  With this feature turned on, a reader can see which passages in a book have been heavily highlighted by other readers.  Assuming we can find a way to handle the privacy implications sensibly, one can imagine a future in which every book provides the starting point for a global conversation among readers separated by time and geography. 

In a hundred years, a child may be able to read a book published today along with the marginal notes, highlights, and debates produced by all the readers during the intervening years.  Asynchronous book clubs can be formed in which readers can carry on their discussion of the book right on their ebook readers 24/7.  Textbooks may allow students to ask questions (and provide answers) in the margins, and link to student-produced outlines and study guides.[16]  Popular novels may allow fanfiction, parodies, and other reader contributions to float alongside the canonical text (assuming, again, we get around the copyright concerns.) The author of the original book may even end up as the person with the least interesting thing to say in the conversation that the book ultimately inspires. 

Yes, one can imagine forms of “social reading” that hinder the reader’s understanding and enjoyment as well as forms that contribute to them, but that is true of the interactive “social Web” as a whole.  The key is how to channel such reader participation effectively.

Living text: A book printed on paper and published in codex form is “dead” – not just because it literally exists on dead trees, but because the text is frozen, unchanging.  There is no channel to correct errors, provide updates in light of new research, or add new material except by publishing a new edition.  But an ebook is alive.  It is trivial to push out corrections and updates to a connected device by flipping a few electrons.  No longer will a textbook be out of date after a year: you can get the updates while keeping your highlights and notes for the unchanged portions.  (Textbook publishers need not despair at losing out on the revenue from producing new editions – an update may or may not be free.)  While concerns about censorship mean that the “living text” is not an unalloyed good, the net positives, I think, far outweigh the negatives.

And while we are imagining the possibilities, why not books editable by the reader, à la Wikipedia?  Not every book will benefit from such collective, participatory authorship, but certain types of books might: travel destination reviews, pop culture references, collections of real-time reactions and thoughts from people at an event come to mind.  A glimpse of this possibility is provided in apps on the iPad that present socially generated content from Twitter and Facebook updates and RSS feeds in the form of a constantly-updating ebook.[17]  Perhaps the book and the Web will one day converge – a possibility I will touch on again later.

No physical limits: Most novels now come in “standard” sizes – a length imposed not just by the attention span of the reader, but also by the necessity of producing physical artifacts, paperbacks, that are easy to carry while giving the impression of something substantial.[18]  Ebooks will not have such limitations, and we may begin to see works that are much longer or much shorter.  Without the thickness of the physical book providing an unconscious cue as to worth, perhaps readers will be more willing to pay for short works of great beauty – thus reviving the novella and short-story markets.  And multi-volume works may appear less intimidating and find more readers if they don’t take up an entire shelf to store.

Non-linear flow: Like the scroll before it, the codex (essentially a concertina-folded scroll) flows the text linearly, one page after another.  Navigation is essentially one-dimensional: flip a page forward or back.  Current ebooks, by imitating physical codices, also imitate this limitation.  But this is a constraint without a real long-term justification.

A screen can be envisioned as a viewer for a free-floating collection of text fragments (as in the Web-browsing experience), a window onto a plane of text arranged in two dimensions (or even layers of such planes), or some other metaphor.  These mental models suggest new navigational possibilities for books.  Already, some magazines published on the iPad are experimenting with the two-dimensional navigation metaphor.[19]  Articles are arranged side by side as long, continuous, vertical scrolls.  A reader scrolls down to read the rest of the article, and flicks left or right to navigate between articles.  Such an arrangement may well make sense for textbooks and other works as well.

Looking ahead, could a murder mystery literally be written and arranged in the form of a maze of “pages” in which the reader wanders, following clues?  Might a “choose-your-own-adventure” book present branching choices as a choice between flicking to the left or down?  Would we enjoy a comic book which is not divided into pages, but have all its panels arranged into one unified mosaic?  Could a whole book be written as a giant grid over which the reader’s screen hovers, zooming in on details and zooming out for the “big picture,” the outline of the flow of argument, and the table of contents?

The very notion of a book as one long continuous text could become a relic of the past.

The associative links of knowledge: So far, I have focused on the ebook as an evolution of the form of the book.  But from another perspective, an ebook reader is simply another computer with a specialized screen optimized for the display of text.  In an age when every computer is linked to the Internet, each ebook is no different from a Web page, with the potential to be linked to the rest of our knowledge.

(This, incidentally, may well be the answer to the suggestion that people no longer read in our age, when so many screens – the TV, the phone, and the computer – are winning the war against printed material for our attention.  But in fact, I do not think that people are reading less – they are simply not reading “books.”  Instead, they are reading more than ever in the form of text on their screens (Web pages, status updates, SMS texts, etc.).  Reading has a fine present and an even brighter future, and ebooks point the way to the ultimate convergence of all forms of reading, when “books” will be liberated from the printed page onto the living screen, where other texts already live.)

As far back as 1945, the potential of linking books together was recognized by Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, the federal agency created to coordinate science research for military applications during World War II.  In an essay titled “As We May Think”[20] for the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic, Bush described the challenge facing mankind as we struggle to make sense of and make use of the accelerating accumulation of knowledge.  His solution was the “memex,” which he described as “a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”

What does the memex look like? 

On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk … Most of the memex contents are purchased on microfilm ready for insertion. Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers, are thus obtained and dropped into place.

The memex photocopies the content of any reading material dropped onto its platen into its memory, from which they may be retrieved later for reading:

Any given book of his library can thus be called up and consulted with far greater facility than if it were taken from a shelf. As he has several projection positions, he can leave one item in position while he calls up another.

It is remarkable that Bush foresaw the limitation of reading ebooks on a single screen even before reading on screens was imaginable by most of the population, and that he provided a Jefferson-like solution in the form of “several projection positions.”

But this is nothing compared to the vision he has for what ebooks can do for human knowledge and understanding. 

The human mind … operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. … Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. …The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined.

Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button…. Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.

There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race.

With the memex, Bush imagined doctors being able to recall at an instant years of case studies and medical papers that are relevant for a patient, lawyers being able to pull up at will cases, statutes, and memoranda that are applicable for a new client, and scientists being able to make connections between papers studied in school (and forgotten long ago) with the latest observations.  These personal databases can then be exchanged, shared, and built upon as though we were sharing the creative capacity of our minds.

Some have compared Bush’s searing vision to the Web.  But how the Web pales next to his account!  The hyperlink, as it is currently implemented, provides the Web page author with a bare pointer to another page he wishes to reference.  But in Bush’s vision, it is the reader, not the writer, who is the primary creator of meaningful connections between texts that map into connections sparked in his mind, bringing together diverse voices conversing across time and space.  Web search, as we know it, is crude, unintelligent, and nothing like the collaborative, associative, human-centric vision of information organization at the heart of the memex.

We have not given the Web browser or the ebook reader an easy way to construct semantically rich links between documents, to build the associative trails through all that we have read so that we may recall the relevant bits later at a moment’s notice.  We have not provided readers with the means to construct their own memory books, books that extend the capacity and power of the human brain into unlimited realms.   We can only imagine what will be possible when each of us can make use of these glowing trails on our mental maps, the records of our intellectual explorations.

To implement Bush’s memex with ebooks requires no great advances in technology.  What is needed is an elegant interface and a relaxation of the legal and technological locks placed around ebooks out of fear.  Only when every ebook reader is a memex will ebooks have finally achieved their full potential.



[1] Nicholas Negroponte has claimed that the physical book may be “dead” – that is, most of the books sold will be ebooks – in five years.  MG Siegler, “Nicholas Negroponte: the Physical Book Is Dead in 5 Years,” Techcrunch, August 6, 2010, available at http://techcrunch.com/2010/08/06/physical-book-dead/.

[2] Prior to the invention of paper, the Chinese sewed narrow strips of bamboo together for use as writing surfaces.

[3] The claim that the codex’s superior text management features were the sole or primary drivers for its adoption over the scroll, especially during the earlier years, is not universally accepted.  See, e.g., Gary Frost, “Adoption of the Codex Book: Parable of a New Reading Mode,” Paper delivered at the Library Collections Conservation Discussion Group Session, AIC 26th Annual Meeting, June 1-7, 1998, Arlington, Virginia, available at http://cool.conservation-us.org/coolaic/sg/bpg/annual/v17/bp17-10.html.

[4] Colin Chinnery, “Bookbinding,” The International Dunhuang Project, 2007, available at http://idp.bl.uk/education/bookbinding/bookbinding.a4d.

[5] Far too much of the commentary on ebooks has focused on the readability of the screen (or lack thereof).  The resolution of the screen is important, but it is a problem that we know how to solve.  And in any event, as we have grown more and more used to reading on low-resolution computer screens, the relatively low resolution of current displays may bother fewer and fewer people.

[6] In the case of endnotes in paper books, it’s possible to put a finger where the note reference is and quickly flip back and forth between the endnote and the main text, but it’s not as easy to perform a similar action with ebooks.  In general, the slow screens and imitative interfaces of current-generation ebook readers make flipping through the pages of an ebook more difficult than with paper books, a problem that should disappear with faster screens and better user interfaces.

[7] Craig Mod has suggested that text can be divided into “Formless Content” (content that is unaware of its container – be it the page or the screen) and “Definite Content” (content that embraces its container) and that design may be a feature primarily of relevance in the latter.  Craig Mod, “Books in the age of the iPad,” March 2010, available at http://craigmod.com/journal/ipad_and_books/.

[8] Of course, the very fact that one is reading on an ebook, right now, sends out a certain kind of signal.

[9] Certain ebook readers, notably Barnes & Noble’s Nook reader, implement a “lending” feature that is so limited that it bears little resemblance to what we would consider true lending.  See Thomas Ricker, “Barnes & Noble nook LendMe feature is severely limited, assumes you have friends,” Engadget, Oct 23, 2009, available at http://www.engadget.com/2009/10/23/barnes-and-noble-nook-lend-me-feature-is-severely-limited-assumes/.

[10] A related concern is that of book preservation and archiving.  Papyrus codices can survive and remain readable for thousands of years if properly preserved.  But quick changes in storage technology and file formats may mean that today’s ebooks will be unreadable on any device in half a century.  It may be that only the most popular ebooks, those that are constantly copied into new formats and new devices, will survive from our time.  We could be living through the beginning of a digital dark age.

[11] Among scholars and book lovers, this is the only good reason for desiring a large desk: to be able to spread out more books at once.

[12] See Dennis Baron, “The book, the scroll, and the web,” The Web of Language, April 2010, available at http://illinois.edu/db/view/25/25030.

[13] This is not, of course, a new problem.  For years, reading and writing on tiny computer screens have presented the same limitations.  Computer monitors have, over time, grown bigger, and multiple monitors are attached to the same computer, as users sought more screen real estate to display multiple documents and windows side-by-side.  Presumably, if ebook readers were to become cheap enough and the digital anti-copying restrictions imposed on them sufficiently relaxed, one could imagine the user replicating the experience of using paper books with multiple ebook readers and having each display a different book.  But surely there must be a more elegant solution?

[14] Of course, due to objections from paranoid publishers and authors clinging to restrictive copyright regimes, this feature is often severely limited in the current generation of ebook readers.

[15] Alastair Jamieson, “Oxford English Dictionary ‘will not be printed again,’” The Telegraph, August 29, 2010, available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/7970391/Oxford-English-Dictionary-will-not-be-printed-again.html.

[16] As an example of how social reading may transform future textbooks, take a look at the Shared Notes feature for the iPad app Inkling.

[17] Examples of such apps include Flipboard, Pulse, among many others.

[18] Indeed, the standard dimenions of books and paperbacks (and now, imitative ebook readers) go back further still, to the parchment codex.  A single sheet of parchment, folded once, produced the book size known as the folio, twice, the quarto, thrice, the octavo, and four times, either the duodecimo or the 16mo.  This last is the size of the mass-market paperback.  Tim Carmody, “The Hidden Link Between E-Readers and Sheep (It’s Not What You Think)”, Wired Gadget Lab, September 3, 2010, available at http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2010/09/hidden-link-between-e-readers-and-sheep/.

[19] One example is Nature.

[20] Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think”, The Atlantic, June 1945, available at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1969/12/as-we-may-think/3881/.