What makes a book a book?

Makers and till roll versionIf you've ever wondered what a book would look like printed out on a till receipt roll, like a digital age On the Road, then ponder no longer. Ben O'Steen has done just that with Cory Doctorow's latest novel, Makers.

First point to note is that this experiment is possible because Doctorow releases all his books under a Creative Commons licence, which makes such coolness both straightforward and legal. Anyone can download the book for free, reformat it to suit their needs and then print it – or not – as they wish.

But while O'Steen's book-as-a-till-receipt is funny, quirky, and also surprisingly aesthetically pleasing, he is making a more serious point about the way we read, online and offline.

“I've been experimenting with a different form of printing with no pagination, where you are effectively printing a stream,” explains O'Steen. “Books are printed out because physical books are comfortable objects to use. This book is printed out but it isn’t at all comfortable to use and it's not browseable either. So even though this contains the same words on paper, it is a far less useful thing in real life than the actual book.”

“I'm looking at how books are digitised and drawing the allusion that if you take a book and scan it in you shouldn't necessarily try to replicate that exact version of the book on the screen. People are used to scrolling down on computer screens, not to left or right. The only applications that do this kind of scrolling are books put online by digitisation projects and this can make them unintuitive to use.”

Makers and till roll version 2

O'Steen is also intrigued by the trust that people put into receipts and signatures. They really shouldn't, he argues, when “for fifty pounds on eBay you can buy a receipt printer that can completely replicate the average receipt.” Anybody wanting to fake a receipt simply needs to scan one in, so that it can even have the right logo and other shop or restaurant details, add in their own sums and then print it off.

These printing experiments are part of a wider exploration of the spectrum between physical and digital. He demonstrates a cute mini Polaroid printer, a mobile Bluetooth device that prints on small cards. While these may seem ideal for children's parties, O'Steen has ideas of how this neat little gadget could be put to more educational uses.

“If a class of kids are on a school trip to a museum, the teacher could have one or two of these printers,” he suggests. “The students could take pictures of exhibits using their cameraphones, the teachers prints them out and then they can stick them into their workbooks and write about them underneath. Again, it's about looking how at the physical and the digital can complement each other.”

The final part of O'Steen's digital/physical project was to take an object that was born digital – in this case his blog – print it out and turn it into a hardback book. Find out how the experiment fared on O'Steen's blog, Random Hacks.

3 thoughts on “What makes a book a book?

  1. Robert

    I am reminded of the old pianola scrolls that allowed pianos to play sonatas automatically, a sort of MIDI file for paper.

    OK, so someone needs to take this till-receipt thing a stage further and create a little reel-to-reel scroller, with a tiny handle on it. The reader could then wind forward the pages as they go. It would make the scroll properly portable.

    The design of such a device should obviously mock/reference the Kindle and other e-readers, thereby making a good political point about the freedom of literature – although the Kindle is digital, the wind-up paper scroll is actually more free, forward-looking and modern, at least in terms of copyright.

    Sadly I don’t have the skills. Is there a Maker out there who does?

  2. Tim

    Hm. That’d be very interesting.

    My biggest issue with it would be bookmarking.

    Such a device would be very… tape or VHS-ish. You’d have to rewind a book.

    (Also, my Capcha was ‘The Candled’, which made my chuckle for no apparent reason)

  3. Merril the Turning Roll

    A book on a roll like this would surely be a pain in the rear to read, especially the tiny print. I looked close and also noticed the frequent cutting of words due to the spacing. An interesting idea, but better fitted for poetry which has short lines.

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