I wrote an essay called The Virtual Book but I never defined the term. By virtual book I mean a book unbound by the traditional and physical constraints of printed books. I say ‘virtual’ because the greatest possibilities I see are in the virtual world of computers. Ebooks and audiobooks are just the beginning. The possibilities that excite me challenge not only the physicality of books but also their more subtle attributes.

A virtual book can be multi-media. It can consist of words, images, video, audio. There, we got the obvious one out of the way.

A virtual book can be reader-driven. Instead of forcing readers to follow the author’s thought process, a virtual book can let each reader steer the way. Wikipedia does this already. It lets you search the page for keywords, skip to the section you’re interested in, and even escape into a tangential topic, never to return. This is a natural way to consume Wikipedia because its form affords it.

Books generally have one start and one ending, but a virtual book can be non-linear. Wikipedia is again the obvious example. But letting the reader drive is only one way to create a non-linear book. It’s also possible to create multiple entrypoints, or even multiple endings, like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

A virtual book can be dynamic. It can change after its initial creation. Printed books, on the other hand, are static snapshots laboriously rendered by a particular author at a particular time. But what if a theory is debunked? Or a hypothesis confirmed? Or a record shattered? Or, in the case of story-telling, what if a loose end can be tied up neatly?

A virtual book can be non-monolithic. It does not need to be discrete or self-contained. It can consist of many interconnected parts that make up the whole but can exist without it. It can reference other virtual books, borrow bits from them, and lend bits of its own. For example, if Herbie Hancock’s memoir was a virtual audiobook, it could allow its snippets to be reconstrued into a documentary about jazz. (If Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary series was also ‘virtualized’, it could have been updated 15 years after its release to include bits of Herbie’s narration.) In fact, it could provide material for documentaries about many different topics: jazz, funk, hip hop, Miles Davis, Black Nationalism, Nichiren Buddhism, meditation, and crack addictions, to name some of the obvious ones.

A virtual book can be responsive. What if a reader could expect a book to field spontaneous questions? ChatGPT is an obvious candidate here, but the possibility is broader. What if Herbie Hancock returned to his memoir every now and then to answer questions that readers had left behind while reading it? What if readers could raise flags on issues that fact-checkers would then verify or return to the author for amendment?

The possibilities are plenty, and they are thrilling. The difficulty in realizating them is not technological, but legal and political. Powerful companies – and therefore governments – are hugely incentivized to prevent the free exchange of “intellectual property”. To make virtual books possible, we need not only the technological power of software, but also its progressive politics.

Dedicated to Aaron Swartz.