"Possible or Probable?": An Imagined Future of the Book

Curator's Note

"Possible ou Probable?," a video produced by the French publishing group Editis, presents a fascinating set of possible futures for reading devices. (Don't worry if you don't speak French; the substance is pretty clear even without following the dialogue. There's an English-subtitled version as well, which is also of slightly better image quality, though there's about 45 seconds of blankness on the front end of the video.)

There are any number of potential avenues for discussion in this video, but there are a few things I'd like to point out about it, ideas that make this possible/probable future far more exciting to me than the "e-book" present of Kindles and Nooks. Yes, color; yes, form factor; yes, text-to-speech; yes, video -- but so much more.

First, though the overriding metaphor of this device is still heavily based on the codex form -- see the "pageturns" as our heroine opens her "book" -- this device provides several key options, including trading the verso/recto form of the book-like device for a more tablet-like vertical orientation. This simple shift has the potential to affect the ways in which we interact with both the device and with the texts we read on it.

Second, though the device is initially presented as a device for reading, a thinner, sexier, souped-up version of the Kindle, we discover as the video goes on, that it's also, at least potentially, a device for writing, as our author approves the copy edits to his manuscript and sends them back to his publisher.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it's a networked device, not just in its ability to download books to be read, but also in its ability to communicate with other devices -- to send text as well as receive...

All of this promises less a new device on which we can imagine that we might read books than a radical new system by which we can imagine we might communicate, in which texts move rapidly from author to bookstore to reader, in which readers might have the ability to respond to authors, and to discuss with one another.


Thanks so much for your post, Kathleen. I’ve loved this video since the first time I saw it, in large part because of the many features you point out regarding this ebook device. However, what I love even more about the video, and would like to add to the mix of our discussion surrounding it, are the many places its protagonists use their device. It works on beaches, trains, in foreign locales, and in actual brick and mortar bookstores. This latter environment was, in my eyes, the best part of the film. I love how it imagines a future where there will still be bookshops, and people who interact and solicit advice from sales clerks. Further, I like how the world of the video contains both “traditional” books and ebooks, recognizing the fact that one format might be more appropriate for a situation than another. All of these possibilities are often left out of our conversations regarding the potential affordances of e-devices like the one depicted here. But, I think its worth noting that part of what makes this particular device look so enticing are not just its inherent features, but the ways its users employ them and integrate them into preexisting culture. I’m not sure it would be as easy for me to fall in love with this fictional ebook were it not for the compelling ways it is used throughout the film – an obvious reminder of why users always matter so much.

Great stuff, Kathleen, and I know you're personally on the cutting edge of helping to re-invent technologies of reading and writing.  And indeed I agree with your assessment in the post: it's startling that so few e-readers provide a robust writing function, save for some obligatory marginal notation features.  There's so much more that could be done with e-reading/writing, and my sense is that developers are held back precisely because they're trying to re-create the form, function, experience, and atmospherics that people tend to associate with printed codex books.  Gary Hall calls this "papercentrism"; we might also refer to it as "codicentrism" (or something like that).  Whatever you call it, it seems to me that e-readers aren't going much of anywhere for as long as they continue to be modeled so  definitively on a predecessor technology.  And I'm sure this will be the case for as long as we persist in calling them e-books.  What's in a name? Everything.

Electronic communication can surprise you. I was in mid-draft on this post on Wednesday, thinking I'd swoop back in Thursday evening and finish things up, before going live on Friday, and just now discovered that the post in fact went live today -- which means you've gotten it in an unfinished state. The post was meant to be paragraphed (and I need to find out why the paragraph breaks aren't appearing), and that ellipsis up there wasn't in fact rhetorical, but was a thought I'd meant to come back and fill in.

But there's something interesting about discovering that what I'd thought was a mid-stride draft has suddenly gotten "published," something that indicates the way that authors, broadly speaking, are going to need to change their relationships to the moment of publication once truly flexible read/write devices become available. And Elizabeth, I'm absolutely with you -- one of the first things I fell in love with was the bookstore scenes, too, and that connection of physical place and network space is part of what excites me about the Nook (much as I cringe every time I type the name) as opposed to the Kindle: the sense that we might link physical browsing with digital reading is genuinely exciting to me. When we're able to get our libraries into that mix (and get the device in a snappy red leather cover), I'll be in.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.