Thursday, December 16, 2010


Jeffrey R Di Leo argues, in the US Chronicle of Higher Education, that The Book As We Know It is not necessarily dead, but at the same time is certainly no longer integral to the educational process. Indeed, his point is much the same as the one made by that disgruntled Simpsons fan on Amazon, although Dr Di Leo quotes Barthes rather than Bart (a joke that was a tad creaky when first made in the Modern Review in the early 90s, and rigor mortis was setting in by the time Stephen Bayley got hold of it, but I still like it).

Di Leo types:
Many concerns about the intellectual quality of digital publications are valid, and digital content can be easier to plagiarize. But those concerns are historical, not permanent. There is nothing intrinsically inferior about spreading knowledge on a screen rather than on a printed page, and plagiarism is an ethical issue, not a material one. Words may look better in print, and a book may feel better in your hands than a Kindle or an iPad, but the words are the same.
Most of which is true, but I’m not sure it’s wise to dismiss so brusquely the *feel* of a book. Even in academia, where books are often read to a purpose other than pleasure, they still provoke an emotional response – a relationship, even – that transcends the mere process of getting facts into the reader’s brain. The words may be the same, but that’s not always the point.

Moreover, while the potential for digital books to enhance the reading experience is obvious, I’m not that sure the punters will actually go for it. There have been many innovative experiments in digital publishing, such as Geoff Ryman’s 253, a hypertext novel about a Tube journey, and Train Man (Densha Otoko), which began life on a chat forum, but neither of them achieved anything more than a niche reputation until they were remastered in more conventional formats (Train Man became not only a book, but also a TV show and a movie). Di Leo would argue that this was the fault of critics and consumers, who failed to seize the opportunities that the digital versions offered. And this hesitancy persists.

I’ve always been a big fan of footnotes in dead-tree books, and when, over a decade ago, I first encountered the hypertext version of The Waste Land – which offered annotations to Eliot’s own annotations – I squealed with delight. This, surely, was the way forward for writers and publishers: not a reference was too obscure, not a word too difficult, because anything could be explained, elucidated, glossed, translated, without breaking the flow of the text. I think I’ve discussed before some of the other books that might benefit from such treatment (Nabokov’s Pale Fire; Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates; Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual; Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman) but there seems to have been very little action on this front. The received wisdom is that today’s multi-tasking youth, who can simultaneously play Grand Theft Auto, message their friends, watch The Inbetweeners and roll aggressively towards policemen will have no problem flitting between text and notes. But few, it seems, want a book that’s anything other than linear in structure. I’ve been informed in no uncertain terms by several publishers that readers (of print books) find too many notes distracting, and that they should be a) reduced in number and b) sent to the back of the text. I can’t see that they’ll be any more keen to have their leisure reading interrupted by hyperlinks.

Although I adore conventional books, I don’t object to their being challenged by digital versions: as Di Leo says, the words are the same. But it would be something of a pity if the only reason e-books succeed is because they’re cheaper to distribute, and easier to take on holiday, and nobody wants to take advantage of their other possibilities.


Chris said...

You know, even just the presence of the internet makes books hypertextual to some extent. Someone on the radio (I think it was Edwina Currie) was complaining recently that a new edition of Kenneth Clark's 'Civilisation' book doesn't have the accompanying photos that the original had. It's clearly a cost-saving / lazy move, but also one that takes Google Images into account. The last couple of factual books I read didn't have footnotes*, but I ended up with a fair few bookmarked web pages for each. I made my own footnotes, in other words, because the web made it easy to do.

* Well, not many.

Tim Footman said...

Fair point. But if people are daunted by the apparent effort of following hyperlinks and/or reading footnotes, are they really going to flip between a dead-tree book and the interwebs?

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I couldn't agree more - books have texture, smell, tactility and let's face it, soul!

A publisher friend of mine is convinced he will see the end of print format in his lifetime (he is in his early 60s), but I beg to differ.

Besides which, even the most hard core techno-nut needs a break from screens after a while.

The only time I can ever imagine investing in a kindle or similar would be as a travelling device, not for home use.