The Two Narratives of The Book

Sam Anderson wrote a piece for New York Times Magazine that ran over the weekend called ‘What I Really Want Is Someone Rolling Around in the Text’ about the importance of marginalina to books. Anderson shares his love for writing on the pages of books:

Anderson also shares the rich history of marginalia dating back to the 1700’s and how digital editions of books should allow this to flourish again.

With all of the talk about adding audio and video to books, sharing bookmarks and comments with my friends is my idea of an enhanced ebook. We are taking tiny steps towards this with Kindle-capable tweeting but we seem a long way away from what we all want to do through these social networking tools we us every day.

Let’s take it to the next step and imagine a marketplace as active as Amazon’s used book market that would allows people to sell their marginalia as an add-on to the ebook you just bought. That next layer of data would accelerate discovery of thoughtful passages and bring an in-text critical analysis. You could read along with the reviewer and discover as they did insights and art of the author. You might by multiple copies of marginalia to enjoy a favorite book again and again from different angles. Or imagine how this could be used in the educational setting giving instructors the ability to share what they teach with their students. And as Anderson points out, this data layer could be turned on and off with a touch.

I still think we need map; a standard linking structure of permalinks that would allow us to easily link to passages within the book and share those with others across an array of platforms. This is yet another reason why page numbers is a bankrupt mechanism for establishing location within a book in the digital age.

My first reaction was that publishers should build this infrastructure and maintain the narratives of both author and readers, but as we have watched the web develop, no one has maintained a vertical integration of the data stack. The successful companies have always built on what was there and gave people hooks to expanded it further.

The trouble is that book publishing is not native to the digital landscape and without a common set of mechanics to enable this sharing, progress is going to be difficult. The change in focus at Open Bookmarks from a standards approach to a principles approach shows that difficulty.

I continue to be hopeful. There is too much conversation going on for the industry not to see how readers want the reading experience to evolve.

2 thoughts on “The Two Narratives of The Book

  1. Selling one’s marginalia – such a cool idea. Yet another huge revenue stream for Stephen King, I think. Also – uber-talented doodlers. Speaking of marginalia, I think you’d love The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet – yes, it’s fiction, but it’s brilliant and not for everyone.

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