Can I dip my Kindle in my coffee yet? (Or: How will book lovers of the future replace their missing DNA?)

September 10, 2010

I found it very amusing that the latest TV commercial for Amazon’s Kindle is set on a beach. One of the last lines of defence for print books is that you can drop them in sand on the beach or spill coffee on them and they still function.

It should be noted that the couple in the advert are sitting high up in deck chairs with their kindles held aloft, away from the evil grains. So Amazon has ensured that the kindle is not so close to the sand as to be accused of misleading consumers, but it is clear that they have entered the beach battlefield and are lining up for the fight.

And, before I get a deluge of links in the comments below, I am very aware that there are many waterproof cases available for the Kindle.

I am looking forward to a Kindle commercial where two book lovers nonchalantly dip Kindles in their tea like biscuits.

I do not dislike ebooks.

I love print books, but ebooks are clearly going to dominate the future of the literary world.

  • They are cheaper to produce.
  • They take up less space.
  • You can take your entire bookshelf with you on the train.
  • They are more friendly on the environment.

I like technology. When I hear that ebooks are outselling printed books in some studies then it does not send a chill down my spine. I welcome this as progress.

But there is one factor in the whole print vs. ebook debate that I feel gets overlooked and I wonder how this need will be tackled in the future.

There is something that books do very well that ebooks (currently) cannot do. Books make up a visual DNA for book lovers.

Most book lovers will have a large bookcase at home. Once upon a time, they struggled to fill it, but nowadays this is probably not the case. The bookcase is full to overflowing, there are piles of books by the sofa and boxes of books in the loft or garage.

And so the book lover has to make a careful choice as to which tomes are entombed in boxes and which are given pride of place on the shelf. The result is a unique matrix of key titles and favourite authors that form a visual DNA for the reader (or readers) of the house.

What your choice of reading says about you is a personal statement that many readers are very proud of. This is a badge they like to display.

Anybody visiting their house can gain a insight into what makes the occupier tick from the wall of battered and faded spines lined along the wall in regimental order.

And then there is the single book left out on the coffee table, the ‘current read.’ Out of all the special volumes on the shelf, the particular book that is on display on the coffee table is a snapshot of which particular part of the DNA is currently active. The book on the coffee table is the springboard for many a social chat between friends while dipping biscuits (or kindles) into tea and coffee.

The book on the coffee table is the bricks-and-mortar equivalent of the Twitter update or Facebook status.

A Kindle left on does not have quite the same effect. A book cannot be switched off and so when you place it down again, it is still displaying its identity. A Kindle left switched on just looks careless and wasteful and gives no indication as to what book is being ready on its blank exterior.

Holding up a certain book to read on a packed commuter train sends out a statement. Picture someone on a train reading a Kindle and we know nothing about them. Picture them reading the printed version of Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ or Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ and we see a different image. We can start to construct a narrative about them.

Of course these assumptions can be wrong. And, for this very reason, many people might welcome the anonymity of the Kindle’s blank case.

But for those who enjoy the statement their books make about them, what will happen when print books are a thing of the past? How will they build their book DNA profile to proudly display in the home?

Of course, technology could provide a plethora of solutions. A large plasma screen could easily replace a bookcase and fade through a series of titles and even type key quotes onto the wall.

Now, as a designer interested in multimedia, this giant screensaver might appeal, but it completely misses the point.

Having a large screen on display like this would be a very emphatic statement and far too gregarious for most tastes.

Printed books are the perfect delivery method for making statements about yourself without being seen to be doing so. The bookcase is, after all, simply a storage device and that book left on the coffee table just happens to be sitting there so it is within easy reach for the next reading session.

So, will book lovers in the future simply let go of this book DNA statement?

If not, what other methods will technology provide that send out the same message in an equally subtle manner?

Thank you for reading this and let me know what you think in the comments below.

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