What Books Will Become (With a Surprise Ending)

Kevin Kelly is among the most thoughtful thinkers of the modern digital age. So, when he talks about What Books Will Become, you should listen.

Kelly is a technologist, and devoted much of his seminal article to what he calls the “scramble to find the right container for digital books.”

From e-reader dimensions to e-ink, moving images to 3D digital paper, social reading to networked literature and more, Kelly explores what the future of the “book” may look and feel like.

But the debate over what a book will become is larger than its bindings. It’s about the evolving definition of what a book “is,” at its core.

Kelly starts his article by stating, “A book is a self-contained story, argument, or body of knowledge that takes more than an hour to read. A book is complete in the sense that it contains its own beginning, middle, and end.”

Beginning, middle and end: the three act play of traditional books.

But will that always be the case?

Probably not.

Kelly seems to agree. “Since the traditional shell of the book is vanishing, it’s fair to wonder whether its organization is merely a fossil. Does the intangible container of a book offer any advantages over the many other forms of text available now?”

I like this question. It opens up new avenues of thinking beyond a book’s borders and gets at the heart of the matter: the book’s soul, its story.

What is its future?

Transcendent storytelling. Enduring arguments. Never-ending books.

Take Star Wars.

Star Wars was originally released on May 25, 1977. Its story, however, is arguably more alive and further evolving today than ever before.

Here’s the kicker: does Star Wars have an ending?

The original productions had endings, sort of. But those endings led to new beginnings. Episode IV led to Episode V. Trilogy one led to trilogy two.

More to the point, Star Wars has evolved well beyond George Lucas’ original vision of “endings.”

The Star Wars universe is now bursting with books NOT written by George Lucas, interactive multi-player video games, cartoon series, action figures, spoofs, live conferences and other creative adaptations.

Where’s the ending in all this?

I don’t see an ending. I see a story free from the boundaries of a traditional “book” ebbing and flowing upon the current of reader/fan curiosity, transcending space and time in our very own galaxy.

Kelly shares a similar insight when thinking about the future. “Some of the techniques pioneered in taming the complexity of user-driven stories in games could migrate to books.”

More than “could,” I dare say. Will. And, frankly, is already here.

These endings aren’t endings at all; they’re inflection points.

In mathematics, an inflection point is a point on a curve at which the curvature or concavity changes sign. Equated to story arcs, an inflection point is any point in the storytelling when a major change or tangent occurs.

J.J. Abrams uses this precise language to describe the latest Star Trek movie, which he produced and directed. His creation isn’t a replacement of the story-lines that came before. It’s an “alternate reality,” another “dimension in time” that expands the narrative with new beginnings.

That’s the answer, I think, to Kelly’s underlying question.

What will books become? Inflection points to the next “chapter” in the story.

If you accept that, then you must also accept the grande finale:

Books of the future won’t have endings, only “to be continueds."

Or, as Kelly says, “A book is an attention unit. A fact is interesting, an idea is important, but only a story, a good argument, a well-crafted narrative is amazing, never to be forgotten.”