The MOST Liquid Books

Kevin Kelly’s New York Times Magazine article "Scan This Book" sure has stirred up a lot of comment in the blogosphere with worthy commentary at Teleread, Nick Carr (including excellent comments from Kevin Kelly himself) and a promise of future comment and the full text of the article at

Whenever I read articles about ebooks or books in any form, I am a little dismayed at how all books are summarily lumped together as though the act of putting print to paper and binding makes the content all similar somehow. You can’t talk about books like this as much as you can’t talk about things with wheels being all the same or people with red hair being all the same. The idea of books needs a far more thorough unpacking than it has received.

Kelly does do a little bit of this in his article…

"…At the same time, once digitized, books can be unraveled into singlepages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippetswill be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just asthe music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or"playlists," as they are called in iTunes), the universal library willencourage the creation of virtual "bookshelves" — a collection oftexts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books,that form a library shelf’s worth of specialized information. And aswith music playlists, once created, these "bookshelves" will bepublished and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors willbegin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages.The ability to purchase, read and manipulate individual pages orsections is surely what will drive reference books (cookbooks, how-tomanuals, travel guides) in the future…"

Whither textbooks? I emphasized the word "remixed" because this is a pet theme of mine (especially this year as the CALI Conference theme is Rip, Mix, Learn).

I think Kelly missed the MOST liquid of books – textbooks.

Almost no one reads a textbook from cover to cover. It is typically read chapter by chapter and in even smaller "snippets". The language of textbooks is such that it does not have as strong a voice as a novel, so if a textbook is assembled from parts written by different authors, there is less cognitive dissonance in the reader.

This is even more true, I believe, in casebooks – the textbooks of legal education. Collections of cases are written by many different writers – judges who author the opinions. These are interspersed with commentary and analysis by the casebook author (sometimes multiple authors). The very nature of the law is one of writing by committee and reading any recently passed or proposed statutes will show you what tangled prose comes out of that process sometimes. .

Textbooks and casebooks are already re-mixed by the crude (in a digital sense) instrument of the syllabus. A syllabus for a course is the playlist that Kelly talks about in education. In the digital book future, the syllabus and the table of contents become nearly indistinguishable. Why inefficiently give students 5 kg of dead trees – of which only portions will be read – when you can give them lightweight electroncs (and only the electrons) that they are required for the course. Hyperlinks can provide further information on the web. This makes even more sense if you instantiate the book into paper for the purposes of dealing with cultural transitions from pbooks to ebooks (print to electronic).

A textbook is a virtual artifact in space in time that is temporarily instantiated in paper and ink for the duration of a course.

A syllabus is a set of time-based assignments that acts as the metronome of the course to pace the students (and the instructor) through the marathon of the course.

Textbooks are frequently updated (every 3-6 years) and they would be updated more often if it was up to the publisher in order to suppress used-book sales. (See CALIPirg’s "Rip-off 101: Second Edition
How the Publishing Industry’s Practices Needlessly Drive Up Textbook Costs
" for the full story).

Updating liquid books is trivial – just like updating web pages. Sure the textbook should remain reasonably static for the duration of the course – let’s not drive ourselves too crazy, but certainly the textbook can be updated, refined, enhanced, tuned, polished and improved semester to semester if it starts life as a virtual entity and only arrives in the front of student in physical form a week before it is printed on demand from and shipped – bypassing the bookstore and their 20% markup.

This inefficiency is exactly what mass digitization can improve. We didn’t and couldn’t know that we were being so inefficient because print and ink was what we had. Digital texts are what we have now and they will inevitably change the way we use the texts.

Change is coming.

Change is here.

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