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: