Digital books are great for portability and give you access to a vast collection of content, right at your fingertips. But they don’t provide the highly personal experience that physical books do. If digital books could “age” they might provide far more meaningful experiences for their owners.

 Bookshelf image courtesy flickr user Here's Kate

Take a look at your bookshelf and you’ll probably see some well-worn favorites as well as some books that you’ve never even cracked open. The condition of the books on your bookshelf convey a significant amount of information. The wear and tear on your books is part of what makes them yours. Your personality and your preferences are literally embedded in every book. As books age they build a unique character based on where the book has been, how many times it has been read, the re-reading of your favorite passages, etc. Not so with digital books which look the same on day 1 as they do on day 321. Digital books are sterile and while Apple has clearly gone to great pains re-creating many aspects of the reading experience, no one is addressing the book owning experience.

Imagine how much more tangible the digital book owning experience would be if your books actually aged. Just like their physical counterparts, the more you read them, the more worn the books would become. Your favorite passages would be dog-eared, have notes in the margins, pages would be yellowed and maybe a little dirty – just like real books. This wear pattern would make the digital book ownership experience much more personal so that even if you and I own the same book, our books are not exactly alike. In other words, a digital book could truly become yours.

There are any number of inputs that could be used to influence the aging of a digital book:

  • Accelerometer – Do you hold the book in your hands or set it on the table? Do you carry it with you across the room while it’s “open”? This might affect the condition of the cover and the binding.

  • Page turns – How quickly or slowly do you turn the pages? Faster page turns could produce more wear and tear.

  • Elapsed time – What day and time were you reading and for how long? Over the life of the book, how much time have you spent on a given page? If your favorite passage is open on a very regular basis, the book might naturally tend to fall open to that page.

  • Light sensor – Are you reading in the dark or in the sun? Sunlight tends to turn pages yellow.

  • Location – Where have you read this book? On vacation in Rome? In a coffee shop? Maybe a page you read in the coffee shop gets a virtual coffee stain.

  • Content – Imagine a recipe book that might get virtually stained with some of the ingredients contained in a favorite recipe.

The value of a book would increase over time for it’s owner but, in most cases, would diminish in value to everyone else. Thus, a “used” digital book would have less value in the open market than a new one. The sale of used digital books should then, theoretically, not impact sales of new books. At least not any more than they do today with physical books.

That said, it’s interesting to note the potential for aged digital books to be more valuable than their “new” counterparts. This value could be sentimental, such as a book passed on to you from a close friend or relative, or financial, such as a book owned by someone famous or influential. Books could even be preserved in their current state indefinitely. Preserving the condition of the book could give you valuable insight into the person who owned it.

There’s a terrific opportunity to capture much of the physicality of a real book and in some instances even improve upon it. Perhaps someone is already working on this. If you know of anyone, please drop me a note. I’d be very interested to learn more.

* Coffee stain image via flickr user adamjscott
** Bookshelf image courtesy flickr user Here’s Kate