Wiki = The Future of the Book?

January 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

We got my Dad a Kindle for Christmas. This in itself wasn’t so out of the ordinary. When someone has everything they’ll ever need it does become challenging to think of fun, original and useful gifts, so the Kindle was a bit of a no-brainer. It seems we weren’t the only family who welcomed a Kindle or eReader into the home this Christmas season.  However, despite buying a Kindle, when it comes to the book, I’m a traditionalist.

I recently finished reading Sherman Young’s The Book is Dead (the irony that the book is named this was not lost on me, nor the author). Despite being published in 2007, a lot of what Young says has remained relevant. He explains that the e-book does not signal the end of book culture because book culture died a long time ago, back when publishing became less about spreading ideas, and more about making a buck. As a consequence, manuscripts were given the green light if publishers believed they would sell and sell well, rather than any sincere desire to spread new, well-considered ideas that speak cultural truths. It’s therefore tricky to tell what was thrown back in the sludge pile and missed out on to make way for the next vapid celebrity book deal.

Young goes part of the way to explaining why some people read and others don’t. It’s because reading and books generally take time. They take time to write, to revise, to publish and to read. A reader is required to invest themselves in the experience, using their imagination to “see” what they’re reading and to create a world, which takes time. Readers are generally those people who had a positive reading experience early on, who fell in love with this kind of interaction between print and the mind. Others have not been so lucky and for them, reading is akin to work. It requires too much effort and we’re all just too busy now. If nothing else, Young’s book made me sympathise for non-readers. I felt sad that so many people never had the positive reading experience I did as a child. They didn’t make it to that head space.

Young champions the e-book, seeing this as an opportunity to reignite the book culture that was lost in the late 20th Century. The e-book and this system could bring about a renaissance for book culture where the expression of ideas becomes central again. But paramount to Young’s definition of the book is the time component, which, according to Nicholas Carr’s Wall Street Journal article The Future of Books, is being challenged.

There is something concrete about a printed book, something final and as a consequence of the time and effort that goes into each publication, something trustworthy. It is understood that for a book to be printed it must go through a process. Given the finality of books, content can quickly become dated. This leads to later revised editions, which are also processes. The e-book offers an alternative which Carr explores in his article. It’s easy to update and make changes to your e-book, if like Carr you “[get] the urge to tweak a couple of sentences”. All that’s required is resubmitting to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Service and the old version is swapped for the new.

the words can keep changing, at the whim of the author or anyone else with access to the source file. The endless malleability of digital writing promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing.

As Carr explains

What will be lost, or at least diminished, is the sense of a book as a finished and complete object, a self-contained work of art.

And that makes me sad. Something that can be changed and altered at whim is not a book to me. Those are drafts. The book then becomes more like a blog or a website. There’s no solidarity there, no sense of completeness.

Lorien Crow added her voice to this discussion with her article, E-book Editing Raises Questions for Publishing.

And while works of literary fiction won’t likely ever offer the equivalent of Wikipedia-style editing, they may be perennially in flux, potentially changing the definition of what a book really is.

And so we come to the crux of the issue, what is a book? If we are to go by Young’s definition that books require time, can these e-books which are so easy to alter be considered books? Is it enough that books make arguments and are full of ideas? Is that all they have to do? If the edges of where a book begins and ends become blurry, what will differentiate the “book” from other media like blogs?

Carr ends his article with this quote, and I think it’s definitely something worth considering, if like me, you don’t want to see the end of such a rich, cultural product.

Not long before he died, John Updike spoke eloquently of a book’s “edges,” the boundaries that give shape and integrity to a literary work and that for centuries have found their outward expression in the indelibility of printed pages. It’s those edges that give a book its solidity, allowing it to stand up to the vagaries of fashion and the erosions of time. And it’s those edges that seem fated to blur as the words of books go from being stamped permanently on sheets of paper to being rendered temporarily on flickering screens.

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