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Why ebooks are a different genre from print

Saturday 27 April 2013

The differences in format are beginning to change the nature of what we’re reading, and how we do it

Posted by

Stuart Kelly

Tuesday 26 March 2013 08.21 GMTguardian.co.uk

Most readers, I think, will by now have seen the "Medieval Helpdesk" sketch from Norweigan TV, where an exasperated monk requires assistance to start working with a new-fangled and daunting "book". It’s fun – if loopily anachronistic, the codex having been around since the 1st century AD. But it does rest on a presumption that I’m increasingly beginning to question: that technological changes to the way we read affect only the secondary, cosmetic and non-essential aspects of reading. There is a kind of bookish dualism at work. The text is the soul, and the book – or scroll, or vellum, or clay tablet or knotted rope in the case of quipu – is the perishable body. In this way of thinking, the ebook is the book, only unshackled from paper, ink and stitching. If the debate about the ebook is to move on from nostalgic raptures over smell and rampant gadget-fetishism, it’s time to think about the real fundamentals.

There are two aspects to the ebook that seem to me profoundly to alter the relationship between the reader and the text. With the book, the reader’s relationship to the text is private, and the book is continuous over space, time and reader. Neither of these propositions is necessarily the case with the ebook.

The ebook gathers a great deal of information about our reading habits: when we start to read, when we stop, how quickly or slowly we read, when we skip pages, when we re-read, what we choose to highlight, what we choose to read next. For a critic like Franco Moretti, the author of Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, this data is priceless. For publishers, it might very well come with a price tag. What would publishers do with the data? If 50% of readers stopped reading your postmodernist thriller at page 98, the publisher might recommend that for Version 2.0, the plot twist on page 110 be brought forward. While the book’s relationship to the reader is one of privacy, with the ebook we are all part of an unacknowledged focus group. Would the small codices containing The Gospel of St John or Tom Paine’s Rights Of Man have had the impact they did if each and every reader were known before they had opened the first page?

This segues into my second contention. China Miéville, at last year’s Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, raised the idea of "guerrilla editors" – readers remaking the text, much in the manner of the fan reaction to The Phantom Menace, The Phantom Edit. As Jaron Lanier argues in his new book Who Owns The Future? the largest digital companies compile huge amounts of information on our likes, dislikes, economic activity, preferences, attention spans and such like. What happens when this information is recycled into the "reader-specific" book? Such things have existed in a rudimentary format – my parents bought my youngest brother a book when he was about five, where the central character was also called "Gordon" and the house he lived in was in a village called "Lilliesleaf": the ur-text behind it would have run something like "Once upon a time a [boy/girl] called lived in a place called ". I can imagine the same phenomenon now on a vastly more sophisticated scale: an EL James-esque book where, based on my digital trace, Christian listens to Alban Berg not Thomas Tallis and Anastasia’s doctorate is on Christine Brooke-Rose not Thomas Hardy. It could even change over time: in this hypothetical book, the characters shop in Lidl. When I go back to reading it, after receiving an advance for my next book, they suddenly shop in Waitrose. What this means is that when I say to a friend "Have you read such-and-such a book?", even if they answer "yes", the real answer may be "not exactly".

Robert Darnton, the director of the University Library at Harvard is a kind of glorious bibliographical fundamentalist: in The Case For Books he shows, elegantly, that it’s not good enough for Google to digitise one of each book; for any intellectual rigour they need to digitise every edition (the old "every First Folio is unique" argument). It is certainly true that there are subtle differences in reading Tom Jones in different editions – the 1749 The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, in Four Volumes is a different experience from a Penguin Classic (and very different again from the softcore porn of The Illustrated Tom Jones (Anderson 144). But the differences might best be compared to hearing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as conducted by Karajan and as conducted by Roger Norrington. The printed book – the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction par excellence – is astonishingly stable over time, place and reader.

The book, seen this way, is a radically egalitarian proposition compared to the ebook. The book treats every reader the same way. It manages to balance the solipsism of reception and interpretation with a communal, agreed space in which those interpretations can be discussed.

Once these features of privacy and continuity are acknowledged, the ebook might well come into its own. Could the e-reader support texts that could be read only if more than one person were reading it – and what issues of trust might that raise? Or that could only be read at specific times and in specific places? Could there be texts that no one reader has access to in their entirety, and if so, what communities of interpretation might grow up around them? (In this case, TV and film are far ahead of publishers; with things like the ARG The Lost Experience – a video game based on the programme Lost – and the Batman-centred"Why So Serious?" campaign.) Realising the specific nature of the book ought to make us more considerate of what the form does achieve, and could well unsettle the ebook into being more daring. It wouldn’t be a book, but it might be something as yet unthought.

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