Words in stone and on the wind

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.

16 Comments

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16 Responses to Words in stone and on the wind

  1. e.m.griffin

    Your tautology happily reminded me of the most worthwhile thing I have watched this week. If you have not seen the interview between Maurice Sendak and Stephen Colbert, you should:

    http://theclicker.today.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/01/26/10243290-stephen-colbert-gets-wild-with-author-maurice-sendak

    I particularly enjoyed learning about his view on e-books…but you have to wait until the end to hear that.

  2. I’m hoping you meant to write “typology” where you wrote “tautology.”

    But I did see the Sendak interview, which is very funny.

    Nick

  3. TGK ..

    Here’s an example of a typo of rather technical nature.

    Laurie Garrett’s book I Heard The Sirens Scream refers to “varicella” virus three times (locations 923, 933 & 936 in the Kindle version).

    She meant VACCINIA, from the context. It’s a mistake overlooked easily by laypersons, but highly significant to anyone who knows about viruses.

    The error is a blot in a good book. I’ve alerted her Twitter persona, with no acknowledgement, but perhaps corrections have been made already.

    The irony is that Garrett is making a big fuss about scientific work on influenza viruses, where the issue is absolute precision of transmission of technical data.

  4. Grizzlymarmot

    It’s interesting that you use the word “modern” in this post. Because the integrity of type is truly a modern part of the book business. I have recently picked up Montaigne’s essays (some argue he was the original blogger.) He frequently revised his earlier “posts” which has given historians a lot of interesting information. In my opinion, immutability is not a helpful characteristic for anyone involved in the book business with the exception of the publisher. If integrity is required, it can be assured by making certain that revisions are appropriately cited. Even in the pre-Gutenburg days, I bet the first copy the monk made sold for half-off.

  5. e.m.griffin

    I did mean “tautology.” It’s one of the few things I remember from my freshman course in philosophy. I was referring to your line, “A printed book is a printed book is a printed book. An ebook is not an ebook is not an ebook.”

    It was that line that actually reminded me of Sendak. In an interview with The Guardian he voices his opinion on e-books again: “I hate them. It’s like making believe there’s another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of book! A book is a book is a book.”

    Tautology…right?

    Anyway, that seemed like a lot of explaining. Glad you saw the interview.

  6. Most excellent, Nick. Very crisp. Of course, the converse also makes a nice set. The four fluidities of the ebook.

    Fluidity of the page — Can flow to fit any space, any where, any time.

    Fluidity of the edition — Can be corrected or improved incrementally.

    Liquidity of the item — Can be kept in the cloud at such low cost that it is “free” to keep and constantly slipped to new “movage” platforms.

    Sense of growth — The never-done-ness of an ebook (at least in the ideal) resembles a life more than a stone, animating us as creators and readers.

  7. An additional thought: Both of these character sets, of fixity and the fluidity, are driven by technology, of paper and electrons. There is nothing to prevent us from inventing another technology of text, a third way, that might be “in-between” paper and electrons, or might have some of the first set and some of the second. I am not convinced that these are binary qualities, nor the extremes.

  8. @Grizzlymarmot

    I mostly agree with Nick’s categories, although with respect to digital publishing, some are not necessarily intrinsic but more choices, for instance the direction taken that the reader can choose the font he wants to, when not necessarily the case in a pdf for instance, or even web sites, in a way (and personnaly I consider this part of the work, so keeping the one chosen by the author/publisher).

    But also true that the “fixity of the edition” is in fact a very modern thing, both from the fact that many books had many different editions(in the sense temporal versions), Montaigne but also for instance la Bruyère that published only one book with many editions. And books also had many different “editions” prior to modern days copyrights, from the fact that more than “publishers” or “editors” in todays sense, there was more “printshops/bookshops” that were copying/publishing more or less what they wanted to, so that the notion of “edition” was quite “fuzzy”.

    See for instance Diderot’s “lettre sur le commerce des livres” about that :

    http://iiscn.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/diderot-lettre-sur-le-commerce-des-livres/

  9. e.m. – I see. Tautology is usually a negative thing, but I guess those are benign tautologies. Thanks for the tip on the Guardian’s Sendak interview.

    grizzly: “In my opinion, immutability is not a helpful characteristic for anyone involved in the book business with the exception of the publisher.”

    I would disagree, particularly when it comes to the immutability of the page.

    “If integrity is required, it can be assured by making certain that revisions are appropriately cited.”

    I hope some kind of revision-tracking system becomes the norm, but that will depend on whether the market demands it, and I have my doubts.

    Kevin, Yes the categories can certainly be defined in opposite terms. And I would generally agree we’re talking about spectrums rather than binaries, though when it comes to indelibility of the page, it’s close to a binary (indelible/not indelible).

    Yt7509: Thanks for the further details.

  10. A Facebook User

    I agree with the commenter who suggested we not think ebooks and print as opposites. This is an interesting framework for the permanence of printed books but we could be getting a little format obsessed. The printed book is the same in a given edition but it’s also not. The hardcover and paperback have different page lengths, covers, font sizes or styles. I honestly haven’t yet heard a ton of discussion about publishers taking advantage of the easier options for revising or editioning ebooks. I consider both fairly flexible.

  11. Jeremy_bee

    What a load of complete rot.

    You are using hyperbolic arguments here starting with the idea that the eBook page can be refreshed (the implication being almost as one is reading it), and therefore changed at any time. This literally never happens.

    You then argue against the “integrity of the edition” in eBooks before noting that editions as such don’t exist in the same way. You forgot to note also that in the cases when eBook editions *do* exist, they act in precisely the same way (integrity-wise) as do printed ones.

    You talk about the permanence of the object in regards books as if it’s a noble ideal while noting that under certain conditions the eBook can last longer.

    There are strong counter arguments to everything you say here as well as states of the print publishing industry (previous to modern times), that map closer to the eBook situation than the traditional printed book as we know it today.

  12. Nick Carr

    Jeremy,

    Sorry to have raised your blood pressure. Your first two “counterarguments” don’t actually counter my points about the technological qualities of ebooks. Your second two repeat observations I made in the post.

    But thanks,

    Nick

  13. Jim Hackney

    Ebooks remind me of the “photographs” in Harry Potter, always live and updating, not actual snapshots in time.

    Ebooks are living documents and what we may want at times are dead documents, especially in regards to references. If a reference to an elink always updates, we would never have a moment of truth, but truthiness, something always malleable.

  14. As a longtime reader of paper books (I still remember my childhood, learning to turn pages, and savoring the musty or fresh smells of thick pages) but also now reading a lot of books electronically, I find myself both enjoying the fact of revisability of text but also getting confused when I find myself not knowing whether I have the “latest” authoritative copy of a file. Granted, the latter problem always existed, although on a smaller scale, thanks to reprintings of editions (I remember being repeatedly disappointed when I would buy a textbook of the right edition but it would contain a huge number of errors that were fixed in later printings).

    I propose that books be versioned in a systematic way just as computer software is. Furthermore, in the case of actually free ebooks, where the source is available (as LaTeX or Markdown or whatnot), and checked into GitHub, I have been very happy to be able to track changes automatically as they occur, rather than rely on someone to manually summarize what changed.

  15. Marci Nugent

    In the nonfiction world, the capability of authors and publishers to change what they “published” yesterday is troubling: one minute it’s there; the next it’s not. And the lack of “place” is troubling also. When authors cite a printed book, they give the city of publication. Citing a URL does not give readers the same sense of context that citing a city does. And “date accessed,” now allowed by the Chicago Manual of Style in place of the date of publication, is the most uninformative bit of information I can think of. These days, scholars must feel as though the sand is always shifting under their feet.

  16. Eclectics

    The idea of cleanly identified versions is a good one. Even just including a hash signature of the text in the metadata would make it easy to tell what version the text is, and if it had been tampered with.

    I like the idea of continuous updates– but it’s also necessary to be able to comment and annotate relative to specific versions. It would be handy if version control software could update annotations to point to the right place in the current version of the text, and inform you of conflicts.