The Chameleon Machine

March 14, 2011 | 8 7 min read


The following is excerpted from the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, co-edited by Jeff Martin and Millions founder C. Max Magee. The book includes inventive, thoughtful, and funny pieces in which Jonathan Lethem, Rivka Galchen, Benjamin Kunkel. Joe Meno, Deb Olin Unferth, and many others consider the landscape as the literary world faces a revolution, a sudden change in the way we buy, produce, and read books. The book is available now on Amazon and in all good bookstores.

There are certain divisions in the world that seem unnecessary to me. Consider, for a moment, the ebook/paperbook divide. On the one side, the traditionalists, with their—okay, our—love of the objects that we call books. The texture of the paper, the beautiful dust jackets. Being able to see how much of a book remains to be read, as pages stack up on the left and diminish on the right. The ability to see two pages at once and have a sense of what’s coming. Writing in the margins.

On the other side stand the gadgeteers with their cold slim readers, packing entire libraries into a volume the size of a novella, flipping pages on a touchscreen. I don’t own a digital reader, but I understand why other people do. Aside from the natural joy of owning a shiny new gadget, there’s an undeniable appeal from a purely minimalist standpoint—why agonize over which two books to cram into your suitcase, when you can bring your entire library with you?—and I have to imagine that ebook aficionados have a much easier time of moving than I do. When I move to a new apartment, it’s a Herculean task involving towering mountains of impossibly heavy small boxes with labels like Fiction: Ames – Bellow and Theatre Books: Box 1 of 10. It isn’t pretty.

Digital readers and paper books have little in common. But both objects have considerable merit, and this is why I think we should combine the two.

The future of the book that I imagine involves an object that looks, in every detail, like a high-quality hardcover. The difference is that there’s no title visible on either the cover or the spine. When you first open the book, all the pages are blank. Hundreds of pages of high-quality paper—a slight sheen might hint at the underlying circuitry—with nothing on them. The cover is blank too.

You might mistake the object for a blank notebook, except for the discreet touchscreen on the inside of the front cover. Here you scroll through your library, and select the book you want to read. For old time’s sake, let’s say The Catcher in the Rye. Once you’ve made your selection the pages remain blank for just a heartbeat—the process taking place in the heart of the book’s machinery is, after all, quite complex—but then the famous orange carousel horse of the first edition dust jacket rises slowly out of the blankness of the front cover, like an image rising out of Polaroid film. JD Salinger‘s name appears on the spine above the publisher’s logo, and then all at once the pages begin to fill. The book is typesetting itself.

The first page is no longer blank. Beneath the Chapter One heading, the famous and incorrigible opener has appeared: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born…”

The object in your hands looks and feels like a book. The pages feel like paper. You flip through them, and all the words are there waiting for you; there’s no waiting for a screen to refresh. The object might even be made, with a judicious dash of library-scented accord from my favorite perfume shop, to smell like the books you grew up with. You can make notes on the pages if you wish, provided you use the special digital pen attached by means of a thin ribbon to the spine.

covercoverBut suppose you get tired of reading Salinger after awhile, or you finish the book. You go back to your touchscreen just inside the front cover, and flip through your library until you find something that appeals to you. Select the new volume, and the process begins again. Just a moment of blankness, while Salinger’s carousel horse fades out. The notes you took in the margins have vanished, but they’ll be there again the next time you want to read The Catcher in the Rye.

And then, Leo Tolstoy‘s name on the spine. Turn the first page and the text of Salinger’s book has dissolved. The first line of the novel now reads as follows: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The book in your hands is now Anna Karenina.

It only sounds like magic. Electronic paper—flexible sheets of paper-like material, comprised in various versions of polymer, microcapsules of oil, arrays of electrodes—has been around since the ‘70s, when Nick Shelton at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center created the first sheet of the stuff. Research continued in the decades that followed, and in early 2010 LG debuted a new prototype: a sheet of electronic paper with the dimensions of a newspaper page, weighing only 130 grams.

In the photographs that accompanied the press release, the material holds a glassy patina; a man and a woman hold sheets of LG’s new paper in what looks like the Tokyo subway system, and the sheets hold the front page of a daily newspaper. It doesn’t quite look like paper, but it’s close. It’s so close.

Is there any reason why, a few years from now, when the technology’s become lighter and better and less expensive, we couldn’t make entire books out of this stuff? There are of course logistical problems to consider—how to manage the display of a 600-page novel on a device that only has 350 pages, for instance—but this sort of thing doesn’t strike me as being particularly insurmountable.

It seems to me that the failing of our digital readers to date is that the focus has been almost entirely on the content. Our earliest books were sublimely executed works of art, years and decades and entire lifetimes poured into the lettering and ornamentation of medieval manuscripts. The printing press changed all of this, of course, but the ghost of that early obsession with beauty has lingered. Beautiful books have remained with us, in ever-changing form, through all the seasons of publishing: gorgeous book jackets, impeccably designed interiors, gilt lettering on cloth. But digital readers have been focused solely on finding the best possible means of presenting the book’s words, of inventing the ideal flatscreen to display them on. I fear we’re nearing a point of forgetting the idea of books as objects, as works of art whose form, not just whose content, we might consider preserving.

The book in your hands has transformed itself into Anna Karenina, but why stop there? One of the major problems of reading is the difficulty of ignoring the chaotic world around you. We’ve all been stuck in airplanes with screaming small children. Because blocking out this sort of thing by sheer willpower alone can be impossible, I wonder if perhaps our books might be enlisted to help us out.

I read a fascinating article a few years back about directed-sound technology, and its potential for in use in museums. One of the aural problems of museums is that some patrons want to hear information about what they’re standing on front of, whereas others would vastly prefer to contemplate in silence. The idea with the directed-sound technology is that if you’d like to learn more about a particular display, you step into a specific location in the room—perhaps indicated by a circle of light projected onto the floor—and there, only there, at that particular point, in a projected column of ultrasonic sound, you hear a recorded voice explaining the nuances of 16th-century Chinese calligraphy or the finer details of the Battle of Brooklyn.

Directed-sound technology has advanced to the point where beams of sound can be directed at an individual in such a way that the people sitting on either side of them will hear nothing. All of this makes me think that the book, once the technology advances a little further and can be easily embedded without adding too much weight, should have a noise-canceling button. Click it and step into the circle of light; you’d be cast, all at once, into your own private aural landscape. Perhaps it might enable silence, or some sort of soothing ambient noise. Care would have to be taken not to zone out completely at, say, airport departure gates, but I think the concept has promise.

I was thinking the other day of sound-enabled picture books. It would be a strange and dazzling new form. Page upon page of gorgeous illustrations, with music, with text and spoken word that no one but the reader could hear. An interactive art project. Or imagine the more practical applications for travel books: on the page listing useful phrases for the country you’re traveling in, you could hear the pronunciation before you spoke, so as to avoid making a fool of yourself when you’re trying to order coffee in Slovakia.

For all my love of the electronic innovations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there are certain tactile experiences that I’m not willing to surrender. The experience of turning pages is one of them.

I love machines, but I want the book I hold in my hands fifty years from now to look like the books I remember from childhood. I want to be able to see two pages at a time, I want to take notes in the margins, I want to flip backward to see what I missed. Most importantly, I want the bookstores I love to still exist in the future.

The conveniences of the digital age are inarguable. I’ve never really liked grocery shopping; it’s nice that now I can do it online at midnight. I feel the same way about buying shoes. But books? That’s something else entirely.

I imagine the bookstores of the future. They’d look very much like the bookstores of now, except it’s possible that they might be a little smaller; if most people are downloading books to machines, they’d need much less stock. A few people might still want to buy the old kind of book, the kind made out of paper, especially at author events. Those of us with the new books, the ones made out of electronic paper that can transform into other books in our hands, will browse for a while and then perhaps, if we happen to be carrying our new books with us, pay for and download the volumes we want to buy. Or perhaps we’ll buy books on a volume the size of a flash drive, to be downloaded to our new books when we get home later.

And then we’ll sit in parks and subways and on sofas, the same as we have since the invention of the printing press, and we’ll flip through the pages of our beautiful machines.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn.


  1. Very nice description. I can’t see such a reader becoming the standard but I could certainly see it serving as a luxury/niche option. But thumb drives? With all of the futuristic glamor, that sticks out like a (pun fully intended) sore thumb. Surely books would be stored in the cloud.

    Like yourself, I don’t currently own an ereader, though in my case it’s because I can’t afford it. However, when I do obtain one, I doubt very much that it will replace all of my books. I suspect that I’ll still maintain a physical library of books I love, while using the ereader to read books for which I’ve not yet developed an affinity. My only real experience with ebooks thus far was reading Last of the Mohicans on a Palm Pilot during breaks from work. While the tiny screen and lack of e-ink were sub-optimal, the convenience more than made up for it. Not to mention that if the book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, hadn’t been included with the software, I likely never would have given it a chance.

    With books requiring less space, more space is available for people. I envision future bookstores as a place where people will gather to read in comfort and discuss books with those of a similar mind. While books will still be available for purchase, the main function will be less as a “store” and more as a “service industry”.

  2. Samuel, you’re absolutely right, storing it in the cloud probably makes more sense. Strange how after all these years and all these changes, a part of me still clearly thinks of bookstores as places where one buys physical objects — thumb drives, if not paper books.

    I can’t afford an e-reader either. But on the other hand, I don’t really want one, so it doesn’t feel like much of a deprivation. Although I’d really like to own an iPad someday; those things are beautiful.

  3. Commentators on technology often erroneously think in EITHER/OR terms. But historians of tech have observed that new tech fractures into many viable eco niches. A classical example is the wheeled vehicle. Today we have those running in size from toys, skates, skateboards, all the way up to tanks and huge mining earth movers like land-going supertankers.

    Print publication OR electronic publication is simple minded. BOTH p-pub AND e-pub is closer to the reality of the future. Each has pluses and minuses. And just within p-pub we are already seeing nascent fractures, between special-purpose e-readers of the Kindles etc family. and general-purpose tablets of the iPads etc family.

    Fracturing and economies of scale and reselling of used e-readers means that prices will drop drastically in the next few years. Which means that e-readers will fan out into the 2nd and 3rd worlds, not stay penned up in the richer parts of the globe.

    Improved tech will see credit-card sized e-readers and the “polybook” of the article and much more, and not very far from now.

    But at the heart of each form will be someone who hitches up hi/r kilt/dress of animal skins and begins “Once upon a time …”

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful entry. I too love the touch and feel of a good book! I remember some of my books by the way they feel. One of my favorite books, Love of Beginnings by J.B. Pontalis, was published in Europe and has a smooth waxy cover that I had never encountered in a US book and the pages are irregular on the edges. Another favorite book of mine, To the Lighthouse has deckled edges and a blue ribbon book mark. I love those elements and they added to my reading experience. I agree reading a book is not just the words but your full interaction with the physical book. Reading also entails the journey the book has taken with you as well as the journey it takes you on, the context in which you were reading it, time, place, and your mental state.

    It is true though that ready or not the world is moving rapidly to online teaching, learning, communicating and ebooks. With this the scope of what is called a book is being redefined and broadened. I believe that books will continue to exist in paper form, but they will become more expensive and more rare. There is currently a push that textbooks become increasingly online entities in secondary and higher education. Along with this movement there is funding to make this technology available to the students who are being asked by their schools to use it. I think digital reading for students is egalitarian, because it offers features that accommodate different learners: text to speech capabilities, magnification of texts, captured note taking, to name a few. These texts are interactive and some already have embedded video and sound to illuminate points. Ebooks are trending heavily in education and perhaps non-fiction will embrace the ebook modality more readily than fiction.
    I do think that one wonderful feature of digital books is that your library is anywhere you are. Your kindle has the books in one container. I have an account with ebrary and they keep your books on a password protected bookshelf and you can write notes in the margin and search all texts by word. If I have my laptop or Ipad I have my books. Technology broadens what we can do with books and I think the possibilities are intriguing. I just received the Late Great American Novel in the mail and I can’t wait to read it in the traditional fashion!
    Thanks again for a thought provoking entry, and I hope traditional books will always be around! If your interested here is my argument for embracing digital books in schools:

  5. This is an interesting idea, but I’m wondering how such a device would operate given the example of the two books you mentioned. The Catcher In The Rye is about 225 pages, Anna Karenina about 860. How could you resolve the difference when switching from one to the next? Actually, how could you ensure that the e-paper book of the future would have enough e-pages in it to accommodate any book?

    Also, when you say “The conveniences of the digital age are inarguable. I’ve never really liked grocery shopping; it’s nice that now I can do it online at midnight. I feel the same way about buying shoes. But books? That’s something else entirely.” you are actually making the same point that a chef could conversely make about grocery shopping. Probably, a chef would never dream of ordering ingredients online; he or she would want to touch and hold them to determine their freshness and experience the food shopping process. Ultimately, like bookstores are of subjective importance to you, grocery stores are of subjective importance to a cook. Unfortunately for those of us who like books, our subjective nostalgia and preferences for bookstores do nothing to increase their overall market value now that e-books are available and taking off.

  6. I hear that Corning is working on a super-thin type of glass that will be flexible and durable. This could be something that forms the pages of the type of e-Book you envision.

    Another possibility is a hybrid of something like the Vuzix eyeglasses with something that can sense where your hands and fingers are (like in Johnny Mnemonic). That way something that looks like a book could be presented to your eyes, and you could turn pages by moving your hands appropriately.

    It wouldn’t feel like handling a book, but all of the visual cues would be there: the relative size of the book, how far you’ve read, any notes you wrote in the margins, a special book mark you’ve chosen, etc.

    I have an e-reader and am only moderately happy with it. One of the things I like about it is that I can stand it up on the counter so that it is easier to read while I eat than trying to keep a standard book open with one hand. But then I could have gotten some sort of book stand years ago to serve the same purpose, but instead chose a remote control to my own disadvantage.

  7. Thanks for this essay Emily. Very interesting. I would like to read the rest of this book, and I really admire you and the rest of the contributors who have taken on the challenge of thinking about the future of our reading. It is scary for a Luddite like me, but thanks for pointing out the silver lining/hidden potential.

    I like the idea of a chameleon machine to a certain extent, but it still seems like a defeat. Maybe (probably) this defeat is inevitable, but I plan on holding out again e-reading for as long as possible. Why try so hard to create a device that looks and feels (and even smells!) like a book, instead of just reading an actual book. I am not blaming you, and I appreciate that you are searching for alternatives that still feel like reading as we know it, but I am still not convinced by the arguments. I know it is a pain to carry around so many boxes of books, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I like the book-lined shelves in my living room, and sometimes just stare at them. It makes me happy. That is my own library, don’t even get me started on bookstores!

    The best way for me to articulate my opposition to e-books is by sharing this short (true) parable:
    I went to my favorite used bookstore in Jerusalem – The Book Gallery – and was browsing around. I happened upon a hard cover English translation of A. B. Yehoshua’s “Open Heart” with his signature in it. I bought it for 38 shekels and took it home.

    No e-reader can offer me that kind of experience.

  8. This is exactly the kind of imagining that I hope innovators in technology pay attention to. The length problem doesn’t strike me as an issue, since the pages could conceivably erase as you turn them, and once you get to the end of the pages you could turn back to the beginning and have the text continue on them. Print on demand is improving enough to allow bookstores (like the Harvard Bookstore) to have a machine and print up in just a few minutes real books for people who really want them, or samples of books to download for browsing. Virtual bookshelves could be put together by staff on tablet display devices, for curated browsing. What you describe should not only be possible, it wouldn’t have to be a luxury item or even very expensive (considering how costs come down quickly after the initial innovation of new models).

    The directed sound could also be used to embed authors reading, or commenting on, their text. Like a ‘director’s edition’ with commentary, perhaps, anecdotes about passages, the kinds of things you hear at author readings. The possibilities are really astounding.

    I really hope someone out there is taking notes – thank you for this wonderful foray into the potential of ebooks.

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