The Purpose of a Book 

Books have survived many eras without losing their purpose. Where do they stand amidst the current onslaught of digital revolution in maintaining their relationship with the readers?

Books amidst other means of information

We must start right from the beginning. Not from the invention of papyrus scrolls or cave wall writings but even before that – the need for man to document his thoughts. This necessity gave rise to a series of tools that enabled him to do that – the scrolls, the Gutenberg press, the mass industrial printing and, in recent times, the Kindles and the Espresso machines.

Each one of the inventions (I have omitted many in the series) has added a key component to the process of manufacturing and reading books. Paper provided a way to document knowledge using the written word, printing provided a way to effectively do mechanical reproductions, e-readers added digital distribution and Espresso adds the convenience of on-demand self-printing. All of these have changed the way we acquire and consume reading materials. They have also diverged the concept of a book as its content to the book as its packaging.

The question that needs to be answered is this: what characteristics would books need to have to fit in the digital age we live in?

To answer this, let us consider why books are written and the three major reasons why they are written (not necessarily in a proper order among this list):

  1. For the writer wants to document his/her thoughts, opinions and learning (scholarly publications and others)
  2. For people to learn from experts and the learned (textbooks and others)
  3. For readers to be entertained (fiction and others)

Please feel free to add other reasons you can think of in the comments section below and we will explore how it fits the re-imagined books model together.

Let us look at each one of these in today’s modern context and the most natural way these happen in the digital world.

First, the need to document what is known. Written word still dominates this area though the medium has become increasingly digital. Blogs have emerged as the leading channel for this aspect of writing. From customizable software platforms like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla to ready-made platforms like Blogger, Tumblr, etc., the blogging systems make it easy for writers to communicate their thoughts and get feedback from their readers. The constraint of having to write a complete book with all chapters serialized is not present in blogs. Readers now have opportunity to shape what will be written in the future and even what had been written in the recent past.

Second, the need to teach and learn. In my opinion, no other aspect of knowledge has undergone such transformation in recent years as learning methodologies. What was once confined to textbooks, research materials, some supplements and workbooks has now exploded into a multitude of products and technologies. Mobile and tablet learning apps introduce children to learning at a very young age developing cognitive skills based on strong scientific reasoning. Schools have been transformed with multimedia learning content including whiteboards, digital tools and learning platforms like Schoology. Digital lifestyle creates peer reinforcement. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) like Coursera, Khan Academy, etc., enable continuous learning.

Third, the need to be entertained. The books’ position as a primary entertainer (with some competition from radio and television) earlier has been severely encroached by other media. These include videos, gaming, on-demand programming, online activities and even lazily jumping from one website to another with no purpose. Leaving competition for the readers’ time aside, books have actually taken many forms themselves. In the last two years, more books have been made into movies in Hollywood than ever in the past. Funnily, this goes way back as in an episode of Seinfeld when George Costanza finds it hard to focus on reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Jerry Seinfeld asks him to “watch the movie”. The Harry Potter series, arguably the most popular series in recent times, has taken the form of movies, games, toys and many others.

So, where does this leave books? Are the glory days of books well past us? Are books going to be one in a hundred ways for us to engage with knowledge, learning and entertainment? Do they even need a comeback having settled into an equilibirium with its counterparts like movies and games?

Or will a simple, inclusive redefinition of what a book is and adding a new meaning to its role in our lives reinstate its glory?

Add your comments on what you think and how you feel about this, as we explore these questions in future articles. Thank you for reading!