Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Book By Any Other Name

By Helen Marshall

The recent bidding wars over eReaders have spawned a series of articles in newspapers and online journals predicting the demise of the book and looking with interest, excitement, nostalgia, foreboding, and regret to the age of digital books.  As a book historian by training, and one who specializes in the period right on the cusp of the transition from manuscript to print, I’ve been watching curiously to see how it all pans out. Books are going through growing pains, a kind of shaky puberty: their hormones are all over the place; they are experimenting with new identities; there’s a great deal of angst and worry from their parental publishers who both look forward to a new age of cheaper printing costs, less environmental damage, and fewer warehouse fees, but also who also wonder what kind of friends their baby will make at school and whether they’ll be needed at all.

In many ways, it’s a time of crisis; but as with all such growing pains it’s the transition that hurts most and the status of the industry before and after may well look the same – even if we lose some players and gain others. It’s a big shake-up, a chance for reading to reinvent itself, to establish what needs to be kept and what can be thrown out with the trash, or, to be more eco-conscience, recycled.

But are books – the kind made from paper and glue that you buy at the drugstore – really dead? I think not. Books as cultural and physical artefacts are still ingrained so deeply that our subconscious will have a hard time letting them go. Can you imagine swearing on an eBook of the Bible? If you walk into a stranger’s house, will you shuffle through the files on their Kindle? Books have status. They have weight. They have beauty. They have authority.

Certainly, eReaders will chip away at the edges of that over time, but the fact remains that books and eBooks are two very different things: they encourage different kinds of stories, different reading practices, different reading experiences. The Guardian recently published a piece, “The Art of Slow Reading.” It suggested that the interactivity of texts, our ability to cycle quickly from partial text to partial text, was damaging our ability to absorb larger chunks of text. All we process is the bite-sized (or byte-sized). In medieval studies, we compare the phenomena of intensive and extensive reading: if you only have a very limited number of books, you read them intensively, again and again, until you have a very deep understanding of the text. That’s what medieval monks did. Reading extensively requires you to access numerous texts, but to have a less substantial grasp on individual content. Society has been moving increasingly toward extensive reading patterns (when it moves toward any kind of increased reading pattern at all). It seems to me that eReaders will likely continue to push us in this direction – certainly, some reading will improve: the inclusion of dictionaries, glosses, character summaries will no doubt mean that the text is easier to interact with. But it may also play havoc with an author’s ability to control narrative flow.

This has, in some cases, proven to be a problem for the publishing of poetry. Billie Collins, in a recent article in the Associate Press, had a real problem with the way that eReader screens displayed the line-breaks of his poems: "The critical difference between prose and poetry is that prose is kind of like water and will become the shape of any vessel you pour it into to. Poetry is like a piece of sculpture and can easily break," Collins says.

It’s not just poetry that faces this problem. Prose writers – really attentive ones, anyway – use all sorts of features of layout to control the pacing of their books: white space, indentations, paragraph size. Read Dan Brown and you’ll find short, snappy paragraphs (much like Twitter feeds!); read Robert Shearman’s new book and you’ll find denser blocks with dialogue internalized so as not to break up the text flow. Layout matters, and eBooks aren’t quite there yet precisely because they are too interactive, too changeable, too prone to reader alteration.

There’s something about low-tech that can be useful. Here’s a chilling example. Most university libraries are spending less money on hardcopies and more money on digital databases because they are easier for both staff and students to access and they require less housing space. The problem is that digital databases require annual subscription memberships. As libraries dump their hardcopy budgets, what they find is they must devote more and more money to maintaining the subscriptions. If you buy your full library on an eReader, and donate your paperbacks to the Salvation Army, what happens when you need to upgrade? The Digital Age requires constant upkeep.

My point, though, is not that eBooks are worse than paperbacks; that they are somehow inferior in the quality of the product that they deliver. They aren’t.  But they aren’t a simple upgrade either. They offer us new possibilities for reading and writing. Video didn’t really kill the radio star, and even if the book is dead, I predict it will have a long afterlife.


Helen Marshall spends the majority of her time pursuing a Ph. D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto where she gets to travel across England to examine fourteenth-century manuscripts. Of course, her fascination with the making and writing of books extends well into the present. Her poetry has been published in ChiZine, NFG and the Ontarion Arts Supplement. "Mist and Shadows," published originally in Star*Line, appeared in The 2006 Rhysling Anthology: The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Poetry of 2005." "The Gypsy" and "Crossroads and Gateways" both received honourable mentions in the 2009 Rannu Fund Contest, while four other poems were short-listed. She also works as an editor and slush reader for ChiZine Publications.


  1. As someone, ahem, who actually formats e-books...I will touch on one point you made. Poetry. I have heard that this is an issue, and even as a non-poet, I could understand the frustration (I've heard of the battles with a single comma)

    Poetry can be formatted correctly, but it would have to be done line by line. None of this point-and-click stuff that I've been encountering.

    In other words, the coder would have to respect the source material.

  2. For me, I see books becoming more expensive, better constructed, more elaborate. They'll be collectors editions and "table top" books.

    Since purchasing my Sony e-reader, I've stopped buying paperbacks all together. I have no where to put dead tree books. They're everywhere in our house. We have bought a couple of hardcovers since (only one at full price) for our hardcover collection.

    As an author, e-publishing offers the ability to write stories without worrying about length. I can sell an 11k novelette without needing to be grouped with several other authors. So, as a reader, I can find shorter works without needing of my favourite new authors without needing to buy the works of several other authors.

    Personally, I love this new wave. I write for it, I buy from it. I've been waiting for this since I saw my first "data padd" on Star Trek.

  3. Ah, I'm back again. Because I hear what you're saying -- that formatting is an issue. And while e-books with prose does give up some control, I still think it's improperly formatted e-books that are to blame, not the technology itself.

    To construct a physical book takes software and a desire to lay it out exactly the way you want. Move this line here, move this indent there.

    The thing is: you can do that with an e-book too. Sure, it's painstaking work. Kind of dreary as you have to have the source document, the editing software, and the e-readers, and go back and forth to ensure that the formatting is exactly the way it should be.

    There are exceptions, of course. If someone cranks up the font so large that it can only fit 1-2 words a line -- well, there's not much that can be done about that.

    So I'd argue that some of your concerns are based on the laziness/ineptitude of the people coding these books.

    Since the code of an e-book often starts as HTML, it would be no different than taking a Word document and dumping it into a webpage and wondering why it doesn't look as nice as in your word processor.

  4. I think the point you make, Ryan, is a good one. I believe the problem Willie Collins had specifically with the interactivity of the poetry. If you put it on an iPhone, it's necessarily going to look different than if you put it on an eReader with a decent sized screen. And his point was that the author can't control that in cases where it does matter.

    Actually, though, I would say that in many case poetry can survive that. It does create a slightly different reading experience, but can we honestly say that the new reading experience is so different that it means we shouldn't read the poem at all? By that logic, no one should go to poetry readings because, again, you're getting the same text in a different format and in a different medium.

    One of the main features that print culture offered was widespread textual stability and reproducibility. In some ways, the digital age has moved us back to the kind of model you see in pre-printing press literary culture -- texts that are increasingly made to be interacted with, to be prone to changes that allow the reader control. So maybe it's not the technology that hasn't met the demands of writers; it's that writers haven't learned to free their expectations and demands upon the technology.

    As a book historian, I believe whole-heartedly that form effects meaning, but does it need to prescribe it?