Let’s add change to the short list of things we can count on. As we all know, all things change, eventually. Even the most self-assured, stubborn, ossified, lockstep thinking changes. Consider: Disciples of divinely-inspired religions have been known to tweak their theology. Physicists, once committed to universal absolutes, eventually embraced relativity. It should be no surprise then that 21st-century writers are revising their notions of the book.
Actually, the book has never been static, immutable. Content and internal structures have continually changed over the years. In fact, it’s this protean quality of the book that is largely responsible for the form’s staying power. But of all the changes applied to the book, it may be that new digital technologies will change the form so radically as to inspire a new label or category.
I read my first digital smart-book about 20 years ago. As I recall, it was a social studies book about the Harlem Renaissance, produced by Scholastic Book Company and targeted to middle-school readers. (I was then an editor and writer of educational materials, not a student.) Not only did I read this book on a desktop computer, but it was my first experience with hypertext links. I remember clicking on the blue-highlighted word 'renaissance' and then staring, awestruck, at its pop-up definitions, general and contextual. I remember clicking on Langston Hughes and being transported to a brief biography, which included other hypertext links, including one to his poem “Dreams.” This linkage of subject to subject astounded me. Still, I was unprepared for the thrill of clicking on Duke Ellington and finding myself watching — in the middle of the book I was reading — a video of Ellington and his band playing their hit song “Take the A Train.”
The experience was unforgettable. As I continued “reading,” I heard, saw, and understood much more deeply, I believe, than if I had been reading a traditional print article. At the very least, it was a different reading experience. For one thing, it was circuitous, not linear. There was choice. There was no single, prescriptive way to experience the process of reading. Each reader’s experience would be unique, depending on time and initiative. The break with the sequential, page-by-page experience did not distract me, much less derail my attention. In fact, I felt enlivened and enriched — better prepared to understand the subject and more likely to remember what I was reading.
I am convinced that the digital smart-book will be a boon for education. In fact, I think most genres of nonfiction will prove well-suited for digital reinvention. I look forward to the next generation of history smart-books that are augmented with interactive maps, newsreels, video interviews, and automatically updating data. Given what an unhandy klutz I am, I look forward to reading my first how-to smart-book, which I expect will include tabs for converting measurements, rotating 3-D photographs, and embedded videos that actually show how to complete each phase of a process. This is not sci-fi speculation. This is not if, but when.