Digital Books That Feel Like Books

Strategic Design for Digital & Print

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Digital Books That Feel Like Books

James Bridle project: Bookcubes

Bookcubes by James Bridle/Image: James Bridle

In the relatively short history of the e-book, the format has mostly been considered as a digital means of delivering text. But books have always been more than this; they are objects that are seen, used, collected, felt. This month we take a look at how designers are working to incorporate these experiences into digital books.

For all their convenience, e-books leave something to be desired for many readers, who enjoy the physical qualities of paper books and how they shape the reading experience. These include knowing how far you’ve come in a book, and how much further you have to go; easily flipping back to an earlier chapter or passage to remind yourself of a character’s origins or actions, or to revisit a bit of plot; and making the text your own by slipping in a bookmark, dog-earring a corner, or writing your own notes in the margins. At the same time, readers like to see what others are reading, and keeping books as souvenirs. (When we visit someone’s home, we can’t help checking out their shelves to get an idea of their interests or personality.) E-book designers are now exploring ways to integrate these essential aspects into digital reading.

One of these explorers is James Bridle, a publisher, writer, artist and technologist whose work examines the intersections of literature and technology. We recently met Bridle when he served as the first artist in residence at the School of Visual Arts’ new Visible Futures Lab. In his projects and on his blog,, Bridle looks at how people relate to and interact with books as objects and ideas. A dedicated bookmaker himself, Bridle has created “editions” that test the boundaries of the digital and physical reading experience. He has also developed Open Bookmarks, an app for “social reading” that allows readers to track the progress of and share their reading and bookmarks with others. (He recently gained some notoriety for coining the term “New Aesthetic” to describe visual motifs that are pervasive in the digital sphere.)

James Bridle project: Iraq War

James Bridle project: Iraq War

The Iraq War: A Historiography of Wikipedia Changelogs by James Bridle/Images: James Bridle

Among Bridle’s editions are hybrids of print and digital forms that juxtapose the “permanence” of paper books and the mutability of electronic texts. For instance, The Iraq War: A Historiography of Wikipedia Changelogs is a 12-volume compendium of the changes made to the Iraq War entry on Wikipedia between 2004 and 2009. Weighing in at 12,000 changes and 7,000 pages, the project demonstrates how written history is not a rigid set of facts, but is always subject to the viewpoint of the reader.

James Bridle project: For Our Times

For Our Times by James Bridle/Image: James Bridle

A similar theme comes across in For Our Times, a series of 50 copies of Dickens’ Hard Times that have identical covers but each contain different variations on the classic text, conveying the idea that books are now interactive objects and can be customized, appropriated or even re-published by the reader.

James Bridle: diagram

Life/use of the book by James Bridle/Image: James Bridle

Digital reading is an ephemeral experience—there is no printed book left afterwards as a souvenir. In Bookcubes, Bridle used StoryCubes, the bookleteer platform and his own Bkkeepr app (a precursor to Open Bookmarks) to make physical artifacts of digital reading. The cubes can be displayed on shelves like books, showing their covers, the dates of when they were read, and notations of bookmarked text.

Ken Perlin project: interactive map of Pride and Prejudice

Interactive map of Pride and Prejudice by Ken Perlin

Other designers are transforming books into digital maps that offer new ways of looking at a text. Ken Perlin, a professor of computer science at NYU’s Media Research Lab, has created a map of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that provides a bird’s-eye view of the entire novel. Readers can use search terms to get a sense of recurring words and themes, highlight characters to see where they turn up in the story, and take in the novel as a whole in a way that is not possible with a printed book. At the same time, the map format emphasizes the idea of a story as a journey to move through.

These are just a few projects that point towards a future of digital reading that both feels more like printed books and goes beyond to offer a new understanding of content and story. The next chapter of e-books may be an entirely new form that seems strangely—and pleasantly—familiar.


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