Stephen King once said, “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” Each book — no matter how many copies exist — is unique in a personal way. This uniqueness forms from first glance in a bookstore; the cover and back are read as you hold it for the first time. Maybe, hopefully, you pay for it at checkout. Taking it out of the store, to the car, then inside the front door. A paper puppy in a new home.

At home it has a special place on the bookshelf. No other book in the universe occupies the same place. The reader eagerly absorbs the words and meanings; in exchange, they imbue the book with a mysterious life of its own.

The book transforms further as the reader consumes it, accumulating a history in service to the written word. And so, as pages become worn and the spine loosened, as dust gathers silently on its head, it develops both a visual character and an invisible patina. This experience, however universal, is unique across every copy, across every title, for every person.

The book will sit in its place for a number of years. Perhaps it is lovingly abused — or shamefully neglected. But either way, its unique character remains. A glance at the dutifully erect spine recalls intimate memories of times and places, moments of gleaned wisdom, peeks into the past, fond recollections of a time long gone.

While e-readers are a wonderful tool for making literature more accessible and affordable, that crucial dimension of lifelike beauty is missing in ebooks. Being digital entities, they retain the full functionality of their concrete counterparts. The ideas contained therein still shine; in fact, they give life to the dull legions of plastic machines in which they reside.

But locked in their binary prison, they are unable to take on personalities of their own. They are prevented from becoming personal treasures to readers.

Every time you hold an e-reader, the same monotonous build greets you. The megacorp logo emblazoned on it stares ahead uninterestedly, if not spitefully. Opening it, you scroll through your library; it seems hollow, oddly gray, without the usual spark. As you flip through overly standardized pages of Malcom Gladwell or Stephen King or J.R.R. Martin, you wonder if you’ve read this before. Each work feels eerily similar, if not exactly the same.

george notes

Future implementations of e-reader ecosystems must allow ebooks to develop personalities to a degree greater than or equal to their physical counterparts.

It starts with presentation and user interface. Think about your own mental image of your favorite stories. Are they arranged lifelessly in a picture-perfect grid, with boring, standardized covers? As you make mental connections between books, genres, styles of writing, and things you learned— does your mind’s eye stutter with the telltale flashing of a sluggish e-ink screen? Or do things sit royally among intertwining branches, nimbly and organically composing an enormous tree of knowledge?

For me, picking up a book I read long ago is like connecting with an old friend. A dog-eared page greets me with the same soft kindness that it did when I first held it. Notes in the margins, underlines, scribbles, exclamation points, all glow softly, in harmony with the very pages themselves. I learn new things and remember old comprehension all at once. Don’t even get me started on used books.

There is an unspoken contract with owning a physical book. You learn from it. It will learn from you. Maybe this sort of interaction should be prioritized, enhanced, made perfectly natural in future e-reader environments. As a start.

I won’t pretend to know exactly how it should be done, or when an effort to restore dignity to ebooks undermines their inherent convenience in the first place. But the benefits of an effective implementation are more consequential than one might think. Increased consumption of literature, to start. Democratization of the publishing process. Better pay for authors.

Most importantly, it will promote the joy and benefits of reading. It’s a powerful tool for promoting social and economic mobility, empowering individuals and communities, and overall, building a more just and equitable society.

Thank you to Tiramisu for his editing and feedback!

Image source: DALL-E

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