Why Should Books Still Be Books When They're on Tablets?

One company's new app distills the big ideas in works of non-fiction into a set of shareable "cards."

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For all the disruption in the publishing industry wrought by the Internet, e-readers, and tablets, reading a book still feels like, well, reading a book: tabbing through pages, digesting information linearly. But maybe that will change. The company Semi-Linear is hoping so: Its recently unveiled Citia iPad apps reinvents long-form non-fiction for the tablet, turning books into something that resembles less a sequence of chapters and more a digital spread of sharable, customizable, collectible cards.

"Faking books and page-turns and location numbers on screens is somewhat functional, but can't be the best solution for devices as nuanced as the iPad."

For example, the premiere book in Citia's library, What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly, is segmented into various, smaller stand-alone yet interconnected mini-chapters. "Kelly writes that what technology wants is for this app to realize its ideal, most 'convivial' form," says Linda M. Holliday, the founder and CEO of Semi-Linear. "So we've tried to build an e-book that's optimized for digital life. We've done away with the endless unspooling text of PDF-based e-books and replaced it with discrete stacks of cards, organized according to concept. The result is a very detailed synopsis of a book—one that always offers users the option to buy the full-length original in any format."

Citia's three-dimensional table of contents allows readers to survey the ideas in each mini-chapter, get an overview of the book's thesis, and dive in wherever they like. Readers can explore according to their interest, prior knowledge, or any other entry point. The idea is to make reading faster, easier, and more social. There's an economic motive, as well: "In this model authors get paid for metered 'micro-publishing,' but each card also promotes the author's original work and allows users to purchase it directly," Holliday says .

Citia was born out of the question of how to make ideas travel farther and faster. Traditionally, e-books have been basically a few pieces of metadata (a title, an author, a publisher) with an impenetrable string of words associated with it. "Those ideas never travel except locked into that string," Holliday says. "They are digitally opaque."

"But books contain some of the best, most disciplined thinking there is," she added. "Making them visible and sharable, so that those ideas could be passed along at Internet speed, became the core challenge."

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The card concept emerged as a natural way to tackle that challenge. Each card has a URL, so it is a entity with "a digital identity." Apple's old HyperCard concept was an influence for Citia, yet surprisingly, Holliday says the city itself was also her inspiration—and provided the brand's name.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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