After I wrote, in a recent Wall Street Journal article, about the malleability of text in electronic books, a reader asked me to flesh out my thoughts about the different ways that “typographical fixity” – to again borrow Elizabeth Eisenstein’s term – can manifest itself in a book. I’ve been thinking about that and have come up with four categories of fixity or stability – not all of which are typographical in nature – that influence the permanence of a book (or other written work) and that change, sometimes radically, as we shift from print publishing to electronic publishing. I’m sure this isn’t a complete list, but I hope it’s a useful start:
Integrity of the page. At the simplest and most fundamental level, typographical fixity means that when you have a page printed in ink, you’re able to trust that the page will maintain its integrity; when you pick it up tomorrow, or twenty years from now, its contents will be the same as what you see today. The printing press didn’t create this type of fixity – it was there with the scribal book, the scroll, and certainly the stone tablet – but it did extend it into the modern age. (It’s true that a person armed with an X-acto knife, an eraser, a jar of Wite-Out, and a Sharpie can undermine a page’s fixity, but I’d argue that that’s an exception that proves the rule – and, importantly, the fact that a printed page has been messed with tends to be pretty obvious to the reader.) The integrity of the page has been so intrinsic to the technology of the book (and the book’s predecessors) that most of us assume it to be intrinsic to the very idea of a book. But, as we’re now discovering, it’s not. Page integrity is not an inherent quality in ebooks, particularly when they’re stored on a networked device or in the cloud (as almost all of them are). Because an ebook’s words are composed of software and a page needs to be refreshed each time it’s viewed, the contents of a page can change from one viewing to the next. We can see this loss of integrity already, and on a broad scale, with Amazon’s Popular Highlights and Public Notes features for its Kindle books. If a reader turns on these functions, highlights and notes will be added to a book’s pages automatically, and remotely. The contents of a page can change from one refresh to the next. Technologically, it’s just as easy to change the words on a page as to add notes or highlights.
The introduction of page malleability to the book will have good consequences and bad ones (and in some cases, one person will see a particular consequence as good while another will see it as bad), but however the consequences play out, the loss of page fixity looks like a revolutionary change to our conception of and assumptions about a book.
Integrity of the edition. A second level of fixity – one introduced with the printing press – was the fixity of content across a large edition of a book. This kind of fixity was impossible with the scribal book, when copies were produced one at a time. There has been a great deal of debate, in book history circles, about how quickly books became consistent across editions – printing remained a manual, artisanal craft, with considerable variability, until it was industrialized early in the 19th century – but there’s no doubt that ultimately the printing press introduced far greater standardization across large press runs than had been possible with handwritten books. (The emergence of copyright laws in the 18th century also increased the fixity of a book’s contents by imposing more constraints on who was able to print a book.) This fixity never extended to different editions of the same work, which could include large and small variations – either deliberate revisions or errors. Nevertheless, fixity within editions, often very large editions of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of copies, became a basic characteristic of publishing. If I go out to my local bookstore and buy a copy of John Grisham’s new novel today, and somebody a thousand miles away goes out to their bookstore and buys the same book tomorrow, and somebody else orders a physical copy of the book from Amazon, we can all be reasonably certain that we’ll be reading the same book. (There is the occasional weird exception, but again it only serves to prove the general rule.)
The integrity of an edition, an inherent quality of modern printing technology, is not an inherent quality of the technology of the ebook. Ebooks have no print runs, and the very idea of an “edition” gets fuzzy with an ebook. A publisher, or a self-published writer, is free to change the source file of a ebook at pretty much any time, and there’s no requirement that readers be alerted to the change. Indeed, the self-publishing software offered by Amazon and other companies make such changes a snap. There’s no assurance that the copy of a book I download (or read online) today will match the copy of the same book that someone else downloads tomorrow. Again, this flexibility may have a mix of good and bad consequences, but it substantially changes our assumptions about a book’s stability.
Permanence of the object. Printed books don’t last forever, but, with a modicum of care, they can last a very long time. And as long as a book lasts, it remains readable (assuming the reader knows the language). Because an ebook is not susceptible to the kind of physical decay that can afflict a paper book, it theoretically can last longer. But in this case there is a vast gulf between theory and reality. What we know about computer documents is that, due to rapid changes in computer operating systems, computer media, software applications, and file formats, they don’t tend to have much longevity. I have a box of floppy disks from fifteen or twenty years ago sitting in a closet, and even if I still had a floppy drive (which I don’t) my current computers would be unable to read most of the files on the disks. As software, ebooks will likely suffer from this same impermanence, a problem magnified by the wide range of proprietary and open formats in which ebooks are sold today. A printed book is a printed book is a printed book. An ebook is not an ebook is not an ebook. The good news is that, if we make smart technological choices, we can alleviate this problem in the future. The bad news is that, if history is a guide, we probably won’t make smart choices.
Sense of completeness. Fixity and permanence matter not only as real qualities of technologies and objects, but also as perceived qualities. As the printing and publishing trades matured over the last half millennium, the publication of a book went from being a vague, ongoing process to an event – a date on a publishing calendar – and, in turn, the sense of a book as a final, finished creation strengthened, particularly in the mind of an author but also in the minds of editors, proofreaders, and book designers. This sense of finality, of completeness, was, I believe, essential to the emergence of literary culture in its current form. That doesn’t mean that a particular author might not revise a book for subsequent editions – if you write a “Song of Myself,” you will probably want it to change as you change – but it does mean that each edition was a thing in itself – at best, a work of art aimed at posterity as well as the present day.
Because it lacks the necessity and the fixity of a print run, e-publishing once again can become an ongoing process rather than an event, which is likely to change the perceptions of writers and their collaborators. And when you change your perception of what you’re creating, you will also change how you create it. I think it’s fair to say that these kinds of shifts are subtle and play out over a long time, but in some ways the erosion of the sense of a written work’s completeness and self-containment may ultimately change literature as much as the underlying technological changes.
So there you have four facets of a book’s fixity or stability that are shaped by the prevailing technologies of creation, production, distribution, and reading. The permanence of a book is not just a function of technology, of course. Many other factors – laws, commercial interests, reader preferences and habits – also exert an important influence. But technology matters, and it seems likely that we’ll be celebrating, and rueing, the consequences of today’s epochal shift from printing to electronic publishing for centuries to come.