What books can learn from the Web / What the Web can learn from books

Hugh McGuire
11 min readApr 21, 2016


Image: Bound by Quinn Dombrowski

This is the text of a talk I gave at the WWW2016 conference, on a panel with Tzviya Siegman (of Wiley & co-chair of the W3C’s Digital Publishing Interest Group), and Ivan Herman (W3C staff member on the DPIG). Tzviya talked about Scholarly Publishing in a Connected World, and Ivan about Portable Web Publications: Technology Challenges.

In university I studied Philosophy, and Engineering, in a program called Applied Mathematics. I loved studying philosophy; engineering less so. I found the engineering courses, mostly, dry, and I had trouble getting my term work done.

When the end of term came along, I generally had something like three engineering courses, and two math courses to learn in their entirety, as well as two or three big philosophy papers to write, coupled with the readings I needed to do to feed into those papers.

I usually had to ace my engineering finals (to overcome those mid-term bumps), and writing philosophy papers, no matter when it happened, always took soul-wrenching commitment.

The end of my academic term was an intense time. Intense and pleasurable too, a time when my mind was entirely focused on learning, to the exclusion of just about everything else.

3 x 3

I developed a system, in which I mapped out every waking hour for a three or four week exam period. I called my system the 3 x 3. I would study in three 3-hour blocks each day; one block in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening, with a reasonably long break for lunch and supper in the middle.

I divvied up all the chapters in all my engineering and math texts that I had to learn over the course of those weeks, and alternated with my philosophy reading or writing papers. So, I might start my study day at 8:30, do 50 minutes of Fluid Mechanics, take a 10 minute break, 50 minutes reading Nietzsche, take a break, then switch to Abstract Algebra for 50 minutes. Lunch, and then an hour writing a paper on John Stuart Mill followed by Differential Equations, and finally Thermodynamics, etc. Supper. Then another three hours.

I recall those times being among the happiest of my student days, when every neuron was primed for absorbing and interpreting new information.

The books I know…

I have always loved reading, and sometimes writing, fiction. And so between the reading I did for pleasure, my philosophy texts, and mathematics and engineering textbooks, I spent those years working deeply with many very different kinds books.

And even now I can evoke the feel of the pages, the colors and fonts in Calculus: Early Transcendentals, by James Stewart; the heft of Fundamentals of Physics, by Halliday & Resnick. The pinkish text box shading in Thermodynamics by Cengel and Boles.

While I have clear memories of most of my engineering professors, in the end when I think about those years of learning, it is the books I remember most as the tools that I relied on.

I can still remember the Chinese Laundry Cafe, with its black and white checkered tile floors and hanging plants, where I spent long hours reading, marking up, rereading, and copying out sections Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology. Battling, and then finally unlocking some meaning from that book. The best paper I wrote in university.

Nodes of knowledge

When I think back on my life, I can define a set of books that shaped me — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually.

In addition to the textbooks that helped define my knowledge of engineering, there is a list of formative novels I have read at specific times in my life — novels that helped me question myself, the world, helped me to understand my place in the universe in new or different ways.

I wonder: can I say the same about web sites? Certainly I can talk about some sites, bloggers, writers on the web who shaped my understanding of the world.

But books are something different, somehow, something more.

They have been an escape, tools for learning, a saviour at times to me, but beyond this, greater than this, certain books become, over time, a kind of glue that holds together my understanding of the world.

I think of books as nodes of knowledge and emotion, nodes that knot together the fabric my self. Books, for me anyway, hold together who I am.

What the Web has brought

The World Wide Web has given readers flows of information unlike anything we have ever seen: brilliant and infuriating blog posts, astounding Wikipedia articles, New Yorker profiles, Buzzfeed lists, journal articles, and so much more. Not to mention the other kinds of network-delivered texts many of us plough through on a regular basis: emails, text messages, Tweets and Facebook posts.

Yet despite the overwhelming flow of information on the Web, there is still something about a book that holds a special weight and importance.

I don’t think this is just nostalgia, either.

Books and intention

I think there is some inherent value in the “bookishness” of a book. And by “book” I don’t mean a paper book, but rather the concept of the book.

There is something powerful about the intention behind a book, the clarity of design thinking that has gone into the form since Gutenberg’s press in 1440, or the first codices some 2000 years ago, depending on your calculus. The clarity of curation, from an author or editor, who says: this will go in, and this won’t.

There is something deeply valuable in the boundedness of a book.

What is a book?

I am interested in what the Web can learn from books and what books can learn from the Web.

And I think in order to answer those questions it’s important to try to define what we mean by “books,” what are the qualities that are essential to “a book” that are not essential to, for instance, a website.

I’ve worked for a decade on the space between books and the web: with audio (LibriVox), webbooks (Reb.us), ebooks and print (Pressbooks). A few years ago I took a stab at a format-agnostic definition of a book. I still use it so that I can talk about “book”, these things that might have many different formats, many different states, but are still somehow the same thing. Here is my effort at trying to define what these different kinds of books have in common:

A book is a discrete collection of text (and other media), that is designed by an author(s) as an internally complete representation of an idea, or set of ideas; emotion or set of emotions; and transmitted to readers in various formats.

It’s not a perfect definition, but it’s the best I’ve come up with so far.

The key ingredient here is not the pages or the spine, but a sense of intentional boundedness.

A sense that a book is a bounded, discrete object, whatever its format. And this boundedness has a kind of power and value in how we interact with, and think about books.

The essence of the book: its boundedness?

Maybe it is this boundedness that gives books a special place in the experience of building our intellectual selves, certainly my intellectual self.

Perhaps because books are defined and circumscribed, we can place them, peg them, hang our new ideas on them more easily than other kinds of information — articles, lectures, web sites.

The book as a defined “thing,” maybe, is what matters.

The essence of the Web: its unboundedness?

If books are defined in some sense by their boundedness, it is precisely unboundedness that in many ways defines the essence of the Web. The Web has a quality of the infinite about it.

Even a single website is in some sense an unknowable collection of information. We don’t have a sense of “starting” or “finishing” a website, in the way we finish a book. There always might be something more that we missed. We never really know. And even in a finite, well-defined website, there is the hyperlink, which sends us off in in a more complete sense than does, say, a reference in a book.

In addition to this whiff of the infinite, the Web has, I think, three fundamental, revolutionary characteristics:

1. publishing: anyone can easily share documents or data with a global audience (which you could say can be a proxy for sharing ideas)

2. linking: anyone can easily create links between documents or data, without asking the owner of the documents or data (which you could call a proxy for contextualizing ideas)

3. openness: anyone can build new services and tools on the platform of the web.

And so you can say that the Web is the most powerful tool humans have invented to share, contextualize, and build on ideas, on a massive scale.

Books v Web

“Oh, Books are Books,
and the Web is the Web,
and never the twain shall meet.”

We have these two notions:

On the one hand, of the power of the book as a portable encapsulation of ideas, as a tool, perhaps the most powerful tool, for building the intellectual self.

On the other hand, of the power of the Web as a tool of spreading and building on ideas.

And yet. Books are almost completely absent on the Open Web.

And so the question then is:

If …
The Web is the most efficient technology we have for creating and distributing information …

And if …
The web is the most efficient technology for organizing connections between bits of information …

And if …
The Web is an open platform on which we can build new tools and services …

And, further, if …
Books represent the (arguably) the most important single nodes of information from human minds …

Then …
Why doesn’t the content inside of books live on the Open Web — where it can more easily be found, shared, read, and built upon?

Cherchez la business model

The reason, of course, is simple: business models (or lack thereof).

After the collapse in the music business, and the chaos of the journalism business, book publishing has moved with extreme caution and conservatism towards digital. Unlike their media cousins, the book business has managed to maintain a digital business model that looks a lot like their print business model.

They’ve been aided by ebook vendor platforms (Amazon, Apple, Nook, Kobo, even Google), whose model is the opposite of the Open Web: closed, proprietary systems that cannot be built upon.

From paper to (restricted) bits

So we moved from paper books to digital books, but rather than embracing digital fully, we instead built a system that tries to mimic the limitations of paper. In fact the ebook system we have built in many ways imposed new restrictions: on ownership (since you don’t own your ebooks, you license them from wherever you bought them), and use (you can’t easily lend your ebooks, or give them away; you might be able to highlight and take notes on your books — but there isn’t anything useful we can do with those notes).

The ebook technology stack — despite the fact that ebooks themselves are built with the stuff of the Web, HTML and CSS — is a restricted, broken version of the Web, purposely so.

Publisher over reader

The overriding principles that govern this arrangement is that the publisher’s needs are privileged over the reader’s needs.

Ownership, rights, and restrictions on what you can do with ebooks are all defined on the publisher’s terms, and the reader has little say.

We accept this state of affairs in exchange for a huge benefit: availability and access to books. It is easier now than ever to get just about any book you want, immediately, and to carry around, in your pocket, a theoretically unlimited supply of books.

This is something amazing.

But, in my opinion, it’s not amazing enough.

What about the reader?

I read ebooks in commercial platforms all the time, and while I am happy about the benefits these platforms provide, I am constantly aware of one, deep and fundamental frustration:

That my intellectual engagement with the books I read is dictated by, and worse, in some sense owned by the ebook store I buy my books from. Unless I want to violate copyright law by breaking DRM, I cannot control how I read, or what I can do with the digital outputs of my own reading activity.

I would like, for instance, to connect the books I read to a service of my choosing that helps me view and track the books I have read, and organize that experience in different ways. I cannot.

I would like to be able to make links between the books I am reading, to arrange, say, my annotations from multiple books from a particular topic into a single place. I cannot.

I would like to be able to easily bring my annotations — along with rich metadata about where they come from — into other tools — perhaps Word to write an article, or WordPress to write a blog post. I cannot.

I would like to track when I am reading books, and what the impacts are on my sleep habits. I cannot.

I would like to be able to plug into a service that will map out all the locations mentioned in the books I have read, and show them to me. I cannot.

I would like to plug into a service that will automatically build for me a reading list based on all the books mentioned in the books I’ve read. I cannot.

I would like to plug into a service that will let me ask an AI chatbot to search for references to the book I am reading in other books. I cannot.

“…and a ceaseless voice in my heart that said, I want, I want, oh, I want…”

On the one hand, I would like to do many things; on the other, I don’t know what I would like to do.

Innovation, creativity

Innovation happens when we build on hunches on the fuzzy margins, iterate, and discover powerful new solutions to problems we might not have realized we had. The commercial ebook ecosystem — our digital interface for one of our deepest intellectual activities — has no fuzzy margins.

Whereas the Open Web, in a way, is all fuzzy margin.

Reading is a creative enterprise. The reader and the writer engage in a kind of dance. The writer provides the raw materials for the reader to build into something new in their own lives.

And this intellectual experience, this experience of creating when one reads, is what makes reading powerful, the most powerful, for me, kind of intellectual experience. That creative synergy between writer and reader.

And I believe that a fundamental job of society in general, and technology in particular, is to find new ways to help people be more creative. Not less.

What books can learn from the Web

Books can learn from the web that huge value — for readers, for learning, for knowledge, for society — can be unlocked when we allow networked digital content to be itself, to do what it does well — to be liquid, moveable and multidimensional, to be reproducible, sharable, findable, and linkable. And most importantly, to be built upon.

Books can learn from the web how to be bounded and unbounded at once: to keep the circumscribed, portable integrity of discrete content; but to open that content to the platform of the Web. To open the reading experience to being built upon.

The Open Web has allowed us to build the most powerful tool for sharing information, and for encouraging the interaction between disparate ideas to create new ideas.

What the Web can learn from books

But I think there is power in the notion of a book, its thingness, and the Web can perhaps learn how to encapsulate, in the way a book does, a discrete thing, a bounded set of ideas.

Books can learn from the web how to be bounded, but open.

The web can learn from books how to be open, but bounded.

(I have a new newsletter about Ai, education and books, if you’d like to get updates on things I’m thinking about, and working on with friends and colleagues.)

(Thanks to my colleague Boris Anthony for helping me work through some of these ideas, and to Ivan Herman and Tzviya Siegman for inviting me to share the stage with them.)