BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
Back in March, before I disappeared into my thesis, I started a series of posts dedicated to taking a different angle on the debate over paper books versus ebooks. Basically, it seemed to me that the argument was always framed as part of the age-old contest between tradition and progress, romanticism and pragmatism. I wanted to try to reverse that. I wanted to look at the practical advantages offered by good old-fashioned wood-pulp-based books, and then I wanted to consider the potential aesthetic advantages of the new-fangled binary-based versions. I wrote a post on the practical advantages of books, and then I discovered that writing a novel takes an ungodly amount of work.
Now I think it’s worth coming back to the potential aesthetic advantages of ebooks. Besides being in greater peril of irrelevancy, the publishing industry doesn’t seem to have changed much in these past few months while I was out of touch with all but my own world. There seems to be at least as much hesitation and ambivalence about the future of the printed word as there is optimism and excitement about the possibilities for innovation. It really comes down to the basic question about whether a buying public will accept ebooks. Since we here at C4 believe the question is not whether but when a buying public will accept ebooks, it seems important to take a close look at just what we might be getting.
I’d like to address what I see as the two most important aesthetic advantages of ebooks. One is personal, the other global.
Nico took up the first one back in February in this post on Why Reading on eReaders is Better than Reading Paper Books. eReaders strip away the physicality of text packaging, including the accompanying presumptions or prejudices that accompany reading different media, whether newspapers or magazines or novels. Homogenizing the packaging forces readers to react to what they are reading solely on the basis of the content. The core of the reading experience has always been the interaction of the reader and the book. eBooks will change that. The core of the reading experience will be the interaction of the reader and language unadorned by dust jackets or glossy finish.
The second aesthetic advantage of ebooks is derivative of this new reader relationship with books as intangible constructs. Right now, many publishers are trying to keep readers from owning ebooks they purchase legally using different kinds of DRM. Besides being a practical waste of time, this whole endeavor misses a basic point. Even when you buy an ebook, you aren’t buying a “book.” You aren’t buying a product that was somewhere else and isn’t there anymore because now it’s in your hand. When you download an ebook, whether from Amazon’s online store or Project Gutenberg, you’re really just getting access to an idea.
Maybe this is just another way of restating my first point, but it has global implications. By going binary, books gain all the practical advantages digital has to offer plus the emergent properties made possible only by the scale of the World Wide Web. There’s no exclusivity problem with eBooks. There can be as many “copies” of each book as there are interested readers. Reading books in the public domain becomes a purely democratic pursuit; all you need is the will and an Internet connection. Imagine a world where a library was something that everyone had, and it fit in their pocket, not just in under-used municipal buildings or in the basements and attics of collectors. Imagine a world where novels and short-stories could go viral.
I know there are still a lot of roadblocks between the present and the dawn of a reader’s utopia, but I do think technology is headed this way. That’s troubling to some, publishers who don’t quite know what to do with themselves or just concerned citizens who think that ereading will bring books down to the level of videogames. I’d argue that the same people should take comfort in the coming eReader Adoption. For all you hear that people aren’t reading anymore, this whole debate suggests that they are at least enough people left out there who really care about reading to make some noise. What proponents of ebooks and ereaders are really asking for is more of what we love and being able to share it with more people. The looks of the latest Kindle aside, I’m inclined to think that’s a beautiful thing.