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By Thomas Baekdal - June 2011

Why Books are Still a Powerful Media

I'm currently working on the early chapters my next book. It's about the shift if media, and one of the things I'm writing about is the future of books.

A very popular notion is that ebooks, in the future, are going to be interactive and have lots of images and videos. They will be more a mix of TV and games than what we see as books today. This is already happening. Just look at the Toy Story ebooks.

But the book based on written text is not going to go away anytime soon. The printed book will disappear, just as we are no longer using cassette tapes for music. But the text, the words, are not going to be replaced by images or moving pictures.

Here is why!

Words in the form of text have one magic property that no other format can provide. No, it is not pages or paper or anything like that. It is something much closer to you as a person. Written words allow you to form the story in your head. To influence it with your personal preferences and desires. It forces you to use your imagination.

Take TV. It is the dumbest form of engagement you can create. You do not have to think when you watch TV. You are being presented with everything. You hear the sounds. You see the faces and the expressions. You see the colors, the background, and the environments. When there is an explosion, you can see exactly how big it is, and how the windows splinter into tiny fragments of glass.

TV is hugely entertaining, but you do not have to use your brain. You can just be a passive consumer. This is why you can watch TV with a nasty hangover, but you can't read a good book.

Next up the chain is comic books. Comic books are more requiring than TV (so please parents, give you kids some comic books!). Like TV, you can see the pictures so you don't have to think about how something looks. But you cannot see how something moves. You have to imagine it. You cannot hear the sounds, so you have to invent them in your head.

You cannot just consume a comic book. You have to think. Not a lot, but still more than when you are watching TV.

The more we leave out, the more you have to use your imagination. Case in point. The comic below is much more interesting because you cannot see it. You have to use your own powers of imagination.

note: via Liberty Meadows

Another step up is audiobooks. With audiobooks you are forced to use your imagination all the time (especially with unabridged books). While you can hear what people say, everything else is left up to your imagination. You have to imagine what an apple looks like, what the temperature feels like, how a frown looks, or how a crooked smile makes your whole body warm and fuzzy.

Some audiobooks are better than other, especially when it is read by a good voice actor, like Jim Dale (in Around the World in 80 Days), or William hope and Laurel Leftkow in The Time Traveler's Wife (which seems to no longer be listed on Audible).

But the real reason why audiobooks are many times more engaging is because you have to provide all the missing pieces.

This is why the written book, one made only with words, sentences and paragraphs is at the very top of the scale. Books forces you to engage your imagination on a scale far above any other media. You can't consume a book. You have to imagine it. You have to use your brain at maximum efficiency, because you have to think of everything.

You cannot hear their voices, see the objects, feel or touch. You can only read, and your brain has to take care of the rest. Compared to TV, a book is highly engaging.

Ever wonder why a movie, based on a book, isn't as good? It is not that it is shorter, or more "Hollywood". The real problem is that it takes away your imagination. The actors don't look or behave the way you imagined them. And because what you imagined was based on your personal preferences - what you liked them to be like - the movie ruins it for you.

The magic of books comes from how the readers actively engage in them. How you force people to use their imagination.

Great authors know this. They take you on a journey where they are forcing you to think all the time. They give you just as much detail for you to start imagining what it would be like, but not so much that you don't have to think about it.

E.g. from The Time Traveler's Wife:

The room is quiet and crowded, full of solid, heavy tables piled with books and surrounded by readers. Chicago autumn morning light shines through the tall windows...

See? You get just enough to put you into a specific environment. Just the right amount of information to ignite your brain. You have to imagine the rest. What does a heavy table look like? What does it feel like? How heavy is heavy? How many books are "piled with books"? What kind of books is it? How many readers are "surrounded"? How do they look? Are they male a or female? How old are they? Are they wearing tweed? What does an autumn morning light look like? How warm is it? What color is it? Does that mean it is cloudy? What kind of shadows do you get from an autumn light through tall windows. Is it a few tall windows high up in an old English building? Or is it a lot of tall windows from ground to ceiling?

The magic happens when your brain asks all these questions. Just like your brain was ignited moments ago when you read it. Your synapses just went on overdrive, and a book makes you feel excited. It feel like you are there ... and in a sense you are, because it is all happening inside your brain.

That is the magic of books. Or more specifically, it is the magic of written text. It empowers you. It energizes you. It makes the story more real to you than if you just watched it on TV.

And this is why books are going to stay for a long time. Not the printed book, mind you. The magic is not in the paper - the magic is in you!

One day the book will disappear, but it will not be replaced by moving pictures or interactivity. It will be replaced by another form of story telling that ignites your imagination - not one that takes it away.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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