The differences in format are beginning to change the nature of what we’re reading, and how we do it
By Stuart Kelly
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.
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