One of the essential characteristics of the printed book, as of the scribal codex that preceded it, is its edges. Those edges, as John Updike pointed out not long before he died, manifest themselves in the physical form of bound books – “some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained” – but they are also there aesthetically and even metaphysically, giving each book integrity as a work in itself. That doesn’t mean that a book exists in isolation – its words, as written and as read, form rich connections with other books as well as with the worlds of nature and of men – but rather that a book offers a self-contained experience. The sense of self-containment is what makes a good book so satisfying to its readers, and the requirement of self-containment is what spurs the writer to the highest levels of literary achievement. The book must feel complete between its edges.
The idea of edges, of separateness, is antithetical to the web, which as a hypermedium dissolves all boundaries, renders implicit connections explicit. Indeed, much of the power and usefulness of the web as a technology derives from the way it destroys all forms of containment and turns everything it subsumes into a part of a greater, ever shifting, amorphous whole. The web is an assembly not of things but of shards, of snippets, of bits and pieces.
An electronic book is therefore a contradiction in terms. To move the words of a book onto the screen of a networked computer is to engineer a collision between two contradictory technological, and aesthetic, forces. Something’s got to give. Either the web gains edges, or the book loses them.
How this collision will play out over the course of this century is not exactly difficult to predict. Here is Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, introducing the new X-Ray function for the Kindle Touch two days ago:
The video is something of a Rorschach test. A person of the web may see X-Ray as a glorious advance. A person of the book may see the technology as a catastrophe.
“When you reduce friction, make something easy,” says Bezos, correctly, “people do more of it.” The friction in this case is the self-containment of the printed book, the tenacity of its grip on the reader. The reduction of the friction is the replacement of text with highly responsive hypertext. What people do more of is shift their focus and attention away from the words of the book and toward the web of snippets wrapped around the book – dictionary definitions, Wikipedia entries, character descriptions from Shelfari, and so forth. It’s easy to see the usefulness of X-Ray, particularly for reference books, manuals, and other publications of a utilitarian nature. But Bezos is not X-Raying a cookbook. He’s X-Raying a novel: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. He is, in a very real sense, treating a work of art as though it were an auto repair manual. Which is, of course, what the web wants a work of art to be: not a place of repose, but a jumping-off point.
When Amazon delivers a copy of The Remains of the Day to your Kindle, Bezos goes on to explain, the company “has pre-calculated all of the interesting phrases” and turned them into links. My, what a convenience! As a reader, I no longer have to waste a lot of mental energy figuring out which phrases in a book are interesting. It’s all been pre-calculated for me! Here we have a preview of what happens when engineers begin to recreate books, and the experience of reading, in the image of the web. The algorithmical mind begins to run roughshod over the literary mind. Needless to say, there are also commercial angles here. Clicking on an “interesting phrase” will no doubt eventually trigger not just Wikipedia and Shelfari articles but also contextual advertisements as well as product recommendations from Amazon’s store. Removing the edges from a book also serves to reduce friction in the purchasing process.
Up until now, it’s been commonly assumed that a divide would emerge in the presentation of different kinds of electronic books. Reference works would get the full web treatment, tricked out with multimedia and hypermedia, while fiction and literary nonfiction would be shielded from the web’s manifest destiny. They’d go digital without losing their print nature; they’d retain their edges. That assumption always struck me as naive, and Bezos’s choice of a novel for his demo of X-Ray makes me even more dubious of the idea that literary works will remain exempt from webification. People aren’t going to purchase different sorts of e-readers for different sorts of books, and the reading medium will, as always, influence the act of reading. Updike observed that “the book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.” I don’t know whether or not Amazon’s algorithm would calculate that Updike’s words qualify as an interesting phrase, but they do seem prescient.