Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why ebooks are a different genre from print

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

Tuesday 26 March 2013
Opening a new chapter for literature ... an ebook being carried throught a branch of Waterstones. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian

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".


No comments: