The Reading World

Making a paper book e-lectric: Selected great histories of the book

Bill Hill, who has been part of the digital publishing world for decades now, tells about his reading of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, one of the definitive texts about the evolution of books. Throughout his studious reading, he turned to his computer to find more information:

In other words, my printed book became an interactive multimedia experience which was far bigger and richer than the original. It took me a lot longer to read – but it made the book come to life, and I learned a lot more.

This raises some interesting questions. For instance, I would have liked to have had Eisenstein as an eBook on my Kindle. It’s such a heavy, awkward monster to handle – especially when reading in bed.

However, on Kindle as it is today, that would have made for a much poorer experience – no Web browsing for links… And I’d have hated to see the mess that Kindle’s small screen and poor graphics would have made of the title page of De Fabrica…

Not only the small pages, but the lack of citable references within the book (word location is relative) and the poor graphics, among other features, would make the book less than it is in paper if forced into the Kindle. Yet, this is exactly what a great e-book will be, something that, while enclosed within the logical arrangement we call a “page” has pathways to deeper and contradictory studies, so that the book becomes an argument and extended discussion. Eisenstein’s challenge to traditional scholarship is vastly engaging and impressive, as Hill notes, but reading only within her perspective becomes, to paraphrase Albert Camus, a trip within the writer’s efforts to justify their limits.

Eisenstein’s book, particularly the two volume version, is excellent. Also consider these titles as must-reads for, combined with Eisenstein’s astute analysis, a fuller picture of the evolution of the book:

Work In Progress

Excerpt from The Book Ends

Here is the first of a series of excerpts from my early drafts of a book I am writing about the future of books. Not the future of e-books, which we will eventually recognize as another dimension of recorded thought that lives within the continuity of the idea we call “books,” though outside the confines of what a book is today. These excerpts are my notes, at this point, useful for the final draft I will produce. I’d sure appreciate any thoughts you’d like to add in comments.

The concept of the book, a manifold notion of words or pictures between two covers, has come to the end of its useful life. In a digital world, the organizing principles that made a book the logical package for the ideas of a single author or collective act of authorship has come to a fork in its road. On the one hand the paper book will always be around, while perhaps not so commonplace as it is today, to be appreciated and enjoyed, passed from hand to hand by collectors and people who appreciate an object of beauty, whether that beauty comes from the packaging or the words within.

This book, however, is about the road beyond the other fork. It leads to the end of books defined by their pages and covers, it leads to communities of ideas built sometimes by one author, often by many, and always involving a conversation amongst the readers. Conceiving of something that isn’t just a book will allow humanity to begin the long experimentation with media that solves the problems of how to produce, deliver and pay for everything from the news to the next great novel. It will also lay down the highlights of a map of new regions of literature, research, poetry and more. When words on a page become exportable, can be shared and annotated by every reader, every title in the library becomes a portal to communities, discussion, argument, debate and differences of opinion. Something new is born when we stop thinking that the book or the newspaper or magazine or literary journal or poetry chapbook must start with the front cover, a single copyright date, and a static text followed by the back cover.

What is this new form of the book? Is it the e-book so many people have tried to bring to life during the past 20 years? It’s much more, because the e-book has always presumed that with digital technology behind the text nothing has changed about the text itself. It still belongs within the confines of its virtual covers. The text becomes a product, mere content that can be “perfectly copied” without any change in the quality of the experience of reading. Yet, reading is only the first step of the communication that takes place within societies and between generations. Where the author was the primary producer of the book the reader is the major contributor to the e-book, or whatever we choose to call the post-book text.

Books—for now, the word is necessary to comprehension—are being transformed from containers into conduits. Granted, they have been conduits before, but they were slow carriers of ideas. Today can convey messages that are not part of the original text instantly. An individual copy of an e-book is an end point of, a doorway to, a conversation that takes place in real-time or over years. That conversation will be richer than disconnected conversations about ideas, because the book itself will also be an evolving reference that augments the initial statements of members of a discussion by providing a direct link between text on the page and the readers, and collects the growing corpus of conversation and related information that modulate the original text. In the same way a salon develops