Separating the Book's Brain from Its Body
Paper books are cheap and variable—they can be precious or disposable, sturdy or fragile, beautiful or utilitarian. The Kindle and other e-books, on the other hand, contain electronics that are capable of downloading and storing content, saving mark-up, and negotiating content rights, electronics that are inherently expensive and precious. So I propose separating the smart (and expensive) part of digital reading from the manipulated artifact.
Paper books are sensual and kinesthetic experiences, but the experience is different from book to book. Paperbacks are light and soft, with pulpy and fragile pages. Hardcover design books are heavy and hard, with thick, glossy pages. Kids books sometimes have cardboard pages. Magazines can be rolled, newspapers folded, and reference books are made to stand on shelves. Digital reading in the future will need to provide the same kind of varied experiences that support the differing motivations, settings, and content of books.
The book brain can be a device with much stronger personal ownership than the book body. It is a piece of core personal electronics like the mobile phone, that you always carry with you, protect, and don't loan to other people. The brain broadcasts the current text to display (via Bluetooth or some similar wireless technology) to the book body, which contains the bare minimum of technology to display the text, transmit notes back to the brain device, and support the page turn gesture.
Paper books do all have a few things in common despite their differences—pages that turn and can be marked, written on, and torn. All book bodies would support the SAME page turn gesture, a diagonal swipe. All book bodies would support marking (thumbing) a page, and most would support annotating. All marking and annotating would be transmitted to the brain device and saved, so it could appear on whichever body you are currently using.
One of the benefits of digital reading is the environmental benefit of not needing a physical book for every story, but we will probably still need different physical artifacts for our different modes of reading. You could have a large, glossy, and flat body for the coffee-table top. For reading while traveling or on public transportation you could have a cheap and compact book body that might not support notes, but that you wouldn't be heartbroken if you lost. You could have a backlit, soft cover book body for reading in bed. You could have a sturdy, rubber-edged, and easy to hold book body for your kids.
Your personal book brain device travels with you for all of your personal modes of reading. It can be worn, or carried in a pocket or purse, or placed on the nightstand. A larger home library brain device could live on a shelf in your home, and certain book bodies could be synced to a specific title—like books on display or reference books. Your personal device can borrow or add book data to the home library device. Some book bodies allow the personal device to be docked to the body, reuniting the body and brain of the book, for example for kids who might have a harder time understanding the separation.
The manufacture and design of the brain devices would be constrained to a single standard to maximize compatibility (like an API), but the marketplace for design and construction of book bodies and accessories would be open (like apps). This way the book bodies could meet varying demands, and improve as the available e-paper and haptics technologies improve and become affordable.
Book data would be available for purchase and download from online sellers. Brick and mortar booksellers could offer instant downloads to your device, and if you don't have your device with you, they can text you a code to access the content when you are able to download it. They could also sell the different types of bodies—airport bookshops could sell replacement flimsy bodies, mall bookstores could sell fancy and decorative book bodies. You could also buy special collector's packages for content that is emotionally resonant—Twilight or Harry Potter custom book bodies with the complete series text, for example.
You could pass a book to a friend, complete with any notes you've added, simply by bumping your device with theirs. This would remove the book from your device and add it to theirs, just like handing over your paper copy which is part of the precious and yet transient quality of books. This also helps with rights management and preserves the timeless tradition of asking for your copy back. You can also email them your copy, or burn it to a 'blank' book body (a very cheap digital reader body that imprints once with text and then cannot be re-imprinted, like CDs).
If multiple people are broadcasting the same book in the vicinity of a book body, it displays markup from both devices. This way you can mark up a book at home, then view together with someone and see your combined notes. This would also enable serendipitous discovery of someone nearby reading the same text as you.
The device itself can be worn (showing the title you are currently reading) as an identity display, and the book body you carry will say a lot about you. Do you carry a sleek and white book body? Do you carry a Twilight book body? Do you carry an ultra-tiny or a large-format book body? Do you carry it in your pocket or in your briefcase? Additionally, smart clothing and accessories like book bags could read and display the title of the book currently being broadcast by your device.
(Final thought: I also find some romance in the idea of these book bodies coming to life with content as you approach them. They are utilitarian and physical, but become rich with seductive stories and imagination through their interaction with you.)