The Book that Can’t Wait or You Can’t Deal with My Infinite Nature, Can You?

There has been much discussion about the death of the printed word – books, magazines, postcards, letters – all of these are set for execution by the digital guillotine, although Mark Twain would probably say that the demise of print is greatly exaggerated. One interesting experiment has decided to have some fun with the traditional format of text.

In their demo video, Eterna Cadencia describes books as “patient” tools which operate on the schedule of the buyer rather than that of the author. “We buy them, and then they wait for us to read them. Days, months, even years. That’s OK for books, but not for new authors. If people don’t read their first books. They’ll never make it to a second.”

There are many stories about young and inexperienced authors becoming “overnight” successes on the Kindle platform because the barriers between authors and readers are being eliminated. Discovery of ebooks and new authors is a different animal than printed works, but this project aims not to just provide discovery, but wonder. Eterna Cadencia is not trying to make our physical books ephemeral with a unique disappearing ink. Rather it wants to makes us turn our heads and think. If we do, there are some interesting scenarios. Say you are a person who tends to read a lot of books, but only once. What do you do? The library is one option, or finding a book sharing buddy, or going whole hog into Amazon Prime’s Kindle ebook lending.

But maybe there is a market for nice looking, bound volumes. A welcome addition to the library of every Gatsby: something to show off. Isn’t there a greater purpose for a book than to be mounted as a trophy? Even once its secrets have been revealed, books are a hybrid of art and utility.

Those who enjoy journaling or writing notes by hand might really pay a premium to get a book with disappearing ink. It could double as a sketchbook, or a book of personal quotations, or a real life Path. The second act of the pages adds another type of resale value to the humble purchase of a novel.

Of course, a book printed with disappearing ink may raise some copyright and ownership issues. Would each book come with a special terms of service specifying the length of time a person has to read the text? Could the books be “recharged” after resale, creating a black market for book hackers? Could the book be repurposed into another book with fresh ink lining the pages with a new story?

Maybe paper books would become like Blue Rhino propane tanks, refilled at local bookstores and swapped out. Imagine if Netflix had rewritable DVDs and just burned the movies people requested rather than having a stock of movies to stuff into red envelopes.

12South has shown that there is a market for creating book-like experiences around our electronic devices. Moleskin notebooks remain popular as well. The physical connection between users and their media is far from dying out.

The permanence and persistence of the book survives in popular culture and in our lives. Some families have bibles that pass from one generation to the next. Others have old volumes of a grandparent (or more distant relative) which are inscribed with personal or historical notations. Amanda Katz discussed these ideas e-book inheritance over at NPR a few days ago, focusing on the concept of books passing up the branches of a family tree.

It’s popular now to advertise books printed on “acid-free paper” with “archival inks” to further cement the permanence of the purchase. If, as expected, printed books never go away entirely but become more niche, like the goodies that come with special editions of video games, or vinyl records. The books that are printed could become branded as “collector’s items” designed to last long enough to accrue value or simply to appease the tastes of the readers, eager to have a bookcase full of pages they can turn by hand.

Katz shares the story of her grandfather’s copy of The War of the Worlds passing through time, and the influence that book specifically had on his career in rocketry. It’s still in print, but having the copy that inspired her grandfather is not something available at every corner shop. Not every book passed on will have the same kind of impressive history, but it can still be a connection to the past.

Who knows, as people start to really enounter the problems with terms of service, digital locks, and non-transferable property (because many e-editions of content are not sales of good but licenses) the Intellectual Property Donor Card, or something similar, will take hold.

My great-grandfather immigrated from Italy in the early part of the last century. One thing he brought with him to America was his mother’s coffee maker. It’s not a book, but the idea is the same. I have a solid piece of metal that was making coffee in the 1800s.

I own two first editions of modern books (so they are not in any way, limited editions) but each was signed when I met the authors: Bill Clinton and David Ortiz. I skipped my final day of classes in college to meet the former President with some friends. That story will survive. Ortiz had a book signing while I worked at a Barnes and Noble shortly afterward. My work badge from the event is tucked into the cover. Ortiz signed it that morning and then crushed a home run against the Yankees in the game that night. Will my descendants remember any of this, and look to the past at specific moments in my life, not recorded on Foursquare or Facebook, but inked into paper? I don’t know. But I hope so.