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Theory of the E-book

Originally uploaded to the English Wikipedia o...

Originally uploaded to the English Wikipedia on 13 Nov 2002 by User:Infrogmation with the summary “(John Stuart Mill, Photogravure from 19th century book)”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By this time, we know what an e-book is. It can be differentiated from the device we read it on, a device such as an e-reader, tablet, or smartphone, and in many cases it can be read on multiple devices. The e-book is not the device but the text that is displayed on the device. The text could be Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” or Stephen King’s “11/22/63,” but it’s the same text, the same book however and wherever we read it. In fact, if you pour the text into an analogue container, a paperback book, for example, it’s still the same book. The Signet Classics edition of “Crime and Punishment” from my college days sits atop my (physical) bookshelves, in the very same translation that I read on my iPad.

Thus we know what an e-book is. It is pure digital spirit. It alights on one device or another and is conceived to be containerless. The container is the mortal coil, which the e-book shuffles off as circumstances require, to fly away to another device, another provisional container.

It is exhilarating to think of e-books in this way. You can almost feel the air beneath your wings as you stop reading on an iPad and then open up the same book — opened to the same page — on a mobile phone a few minutes later.

No wonder that the self-styled leaders of the movement to all-digital publishing think of this exhilaration as uniquely their own and sneer at those who cannot or will not take flight. To the digiterati, the spiritual nature of the e-book represents a keen insight into the nature of digital media. The digital spirit, the freedom from analogue containers — the victory of bits over atoms — is seen as a critique of the world of legacy print publishing. It is a theory of books: the book is a text, and the text has a life outside any particular manifestation. If you bring a librarian into the discussion, the conversation turns to preservation, the e-book equivalent of the hereafter.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time before the book was deemed to be a text that can be uprooted from the circumstances of its creation. The book had an author, and knowing something about that author would help us better understand the book itself. Or the book arose from the historical circumstances of its original production. Or the book represented a psychosexual struggle with the demons of parents and siblings. Or the book was a loosely concealed set of political arguments, each fighting for hegemony. It was not preordained that all these rivalries would come to an end with the manifesto of the containerless e-book. That theory of the book, that it is simply a text, unanchored in personality or the circumstances of its production, has been around for decades; it is not an invention of Apple or Amazon. But it has been taken as the proper way to think about a book in the age of the e-book. The e-book, in other words, is a manifestation of one literary theory, though few if any practitioners of the art of e-book-making think of it as such. They simply are confident that they have the right idea, and anyone who does not share it is a “legacy” publisher or a Luddite, someone who is constitutionally incapable of perceiving the truth.

This view of the book — which, I should note, is as good as any other and perhaps in many instances, more useful — has an affinity for other positions about publishing. For example, we routinely hear about all the “knowledge” to be found in the collection of a large research library. But there is no knowledge in a library.  There is information. It becomes knowledge when it is engaged by a human brain. Or some talk about “access to research.” But there is no research in the pages or screens of an STM journal. There is a highly structured description of research, but the research is to be found elsewhere, in laboratories and in the neural activity of the researchers themselves. The prevailing theory of the e-book has it that the meaning of the text lies in the text itself and not in the intellectual and imaginative spaces that that text points to.

It is this theory of the e-book that leads a corporation to digitize the collections of the world’s great libraries. This theory prompts us to contemplate text-mining and data-extraction. When we walk into the rare book room at a research library, we see quaint relics of a bygone era, not the living tissue of the circumstances of the book’s material incarnation. Erasmus, John Stuart Mill, Wittgenstein — these are all files, to be sifted and sorted, sent and stored, shared and saved.

It must be lonely for a book to be so digitally disembodied, and perhaps that is why the current theory of the e-book posits a context for the book’s consumption. It is as though having pulled the book up by the roots, with no connection to its origins or the physical attributes of the material world in which it was created, the new theorists want to plant the book again, as too much time outside the soil will cause even the heartiest flower to wither and die. Thus, the book has been injected into “the conversation.” The conversation is what you do every day online — it is what I am doing now.  It consists of comments and critiques, tags and posts, the back-and-forth of blogs, GoodReads, Twitter, Facebook, G+, and the open dialogues surrounding such prominent services as arXiv, SSRN, and PLoS.  These new media tools and services throw out a lifeline to the deracinated book. The book becomes social, as much a member of the community as the people and robots that are its primary participants. The digital book becomes the imaginary friend seated at the table. We acknowledge it, we nod to it, and our lives proceed with this happy indulgence in our shared fiction.

The theory of the purely spiritual e-book was only one of many, but the circumstances of networked communications have pushed it out ahead of all others. The theory of the e-book was not necessarily “true” or “right” in any conventional sense of those terms, but the Internet and the world of mobile media have made it seem convincingly right in practice. We may doubt the existence of god, but on a day of brilliant sunlight and money in our pocket, His beneficence is everywhere evident. Thus the e-book: elusive as leptons and muons, but everywhere around us, providing a virtual anchor to our own deracinated lives.

Of course, it is only a metaphor, this book without an author, this containerless collection of words; and like all metaphors, it breaks down at some point. We are not there yet. The theory of the e-book still has a distance to ride, but when it comes to the end of the road, new metaphors will rise up. We will know that time has come when the e-book unfriends us on Facebook.

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About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.

Discussion

16 thoughts on “Theory of the E-book

  1. If you bring a librarian to the discussion, he would point to FRBR, the “functional requirements for bibliographic records”. The FRBR spell out an ontology (work-expression-manifestation-item) of text related works. The e-text of a work is not “purely spiritual”. It’s a manifestation like others, that means: you can (and you have to) differentiate between versions (e.g. by typos or other properties of the text). I don’t see that much difference between opening the same text on your iPad and Smartphone or reading the printed newspaper at home and in the library. (Hey! It’s the same text! Purely spiritual!)

    Posted by jge | Dec 6, 2012, 8:01 am
  2. Robert Darnton, I believe, would have to disagree. In his “The New Age of the Book” (NYRB, March 1999) he elaborated a vision for a multilayered, multidimensional e-book that could, by its very nature, have no exact equivalent in the print world. And, indeed, one of the problems faced by Columbia University Press, as publisher of Gutenberg-e, was that history journals were reluctant to review the e-books and wanted something in print to send to reviewers. But what could be sent was not a full representation of the e-book.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Dec 6, 2012, 10:48 am
    • You missed my point, Sandy. I was not advocating this theory of the ebook. I was saying that it is the implicit theory of the ebook by most current practitioners, and that that theory is limited. Darnton’s is just another view, advocates of print have their own theories, and so on.l

      Posted by Joseph Esposito | Dec 6, 2012, 10:59 am
    • I object to using the word e-book to refer to a multimedia object that can’t be reproduced as a print book. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a better word for it…

      Posted by Amanda | Jan 3, 2013, 1:24 pm
  3. That theory of the book, that it is simply a text, unanchored in personality or the circumstances of its production, has been around for decades; it is not an invention of Apple or Amazon. But it has been taken as the proper way to think about a book in the age of the e-book.

    I don’t think I see this in the people around me. I know lots of people who love their Kindles but are still New Historicists or cultural studies folks who absolutely still think about the cultural context in which something was written. Of course, these same people have never cared—not with physical books or with their Kindles—about the means of production in publishing (i.e., printing technology, digital technology, etc.) and the effects they may have on the creation of a text.

    I think maybe you’re conflating two different things that I wouldn’t necessarily consider together: the writing of a book/text and the creation of the physical/digital object. These do overlap to varying degrees but not entirely, but I wouldn’t agree that the decentralization of the book as object necessarily corresponds with a de-emphasis on reading the text in some sort of context.

    Also, not to be pedantic, but printed books aren’t analog.

    Posted by Joel T. Luber | Dec 6, 2012, 11:41 am
  4. What I find disconcerting about e books is that they are unbounded. I never know where I am in one. Am I near the end, the middle, at the end of a chapter so that I can put it down and go to sleep, etc. If I lose my place, to find it again is a chore of tapping the screen. It is hard to find things in it, I know one can do all sorts of machinations, but they are just not as easy as saying lets see it was about here!

    Nonetheless, I go to bed with my Kindle. My wife does not mind the little lamp I use and it covers the page or should I say screen. She does not complain!

    I tend to agree with you Joseph when you say what things are or are not unless there is human interaction. One of the things the e book has done is revive the back list and made all that out of print material we meant to read when working available in retirement. That is good,

    Posted by harvey kane | Dec 6, 2012, 11:46 am
  5. I think one result of this particular theory of the e-book is that is creates an externality — a potential agreement of meaning within a community of readers — when much of what a book (or, potentially, e-book) has been about is its private influence on the contemplative reader. This is not bad, but I do think it is a rather ironical restraint due to the Internet panopticon.

    Posted by Bob Watson | Dec 7, 2012, 3:24 pm
  6. There is no theory here, it is an assumption, but it is the very same assumption that came with mass production in the first place. A re-reading of “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” might help.

    Posted by jeffmcneill | Dec 7, 2012, 9:56 pm
  7. I’m afraid I don’t see this e-book disconnected from its author, and it seems to me a dangerous distinction to make. As a collection of words it has an author, and that author owns the copyright to that collection of words, and the law of copyright has not changed with the advent of the e-book. Or am I missing something?

    Posted by Matt Nicholson | Dec 8, 2012, 10:34 am
  8. Reblogged this on Mark Nesbitt and commented:
    Have we separated the influence of “creation” from the words, themselves, through the creation of e-books?

    Posted by hauntgburg | Dec 13, 2012, 9:40 am
  9. Thanks for some great new insight. You made me think in different ways.

    Posted by writingsailor | Dec 13, 2012, 12:59 pm
  10. Reblogged this on EditorEtc LLC.

    Posted by EditorEtc™ LLC | Dec 17, 2012, 4:09 pm

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  1. Pingback: New data on publishing authors proves we need more, wider surveys. - Dec 13, 2012

  2. Pingback: The E-Book As Spirit « the coffee philosopher - Dec 30, 2012

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