The remains of the book

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.

8 thoughts on “The remains of the book

  1. Mark Cianfrani

    The funny thing is . . . you’ve already come up with one of the better ideas I’ve heard for the future of the “book” in “The Shallows” that doesn’t sacrifice the “completeness” of the form while taking advantage of our growing desire to share everything we perceive. I’m still waiting to see any sort of start-up run with your ideas.

    There’s something that is a little unsettling to me when I think about how some of the classic writers are going to be lost in translation (i.e. imagining F. Scott Fitzgerald writing with today’s limitation of the 140-character tweet.) I’m sure the only ‘interesting phrases’ in “The Great Gatsby” will be the ones that fall under the 140-character mark (there’s about 3 in the entire book).

    Nonetheless, it’s pretty exciting to watch how things unwind. Great post!

  2. suburbanbanshee

    Personally, I find the idea of linked phrases very annoying, which is why I’ve never enabled that on my Kindle software.

    However, ever since the beginnings of post-classical civilization, European readers have been scribbling glosses and notes in the margins and between the lines. Even books which don’t explicitly include footnotes and glosses implicitly contain references to all other books. We always lived in a world of bodies of literature, not of separate island books.

    But cerebrally or digitally, most people don’t fiddle around with all that linking crud. They just keep pushing that next-page button until they get done.

  3. Nick Carr

    But cerebrally or digitally, most people don’t fiddle around with all that linking crud. They just keep pushing that next-page button until they get done.

    I assume you’re extrapolating from your own experience. I don’t know for sure whether you’re correct, but I suspect that, at this point, you are. Most people, and certainly most early Kindle owners, have established their reading habits through their use of an older technology (print) and tend to carry those habits to the new technology (e-reader). Habits are often fairly slow to change. There is also (thank goodness) the authorial skill in encouraging deep engagement with a book – that, too, provides an important counterbalance to technological pressures, and one that also should persist.

    But what’s important is how the technological shift influences book reading over the longer term – over five years, ten years, 50 years, 100 years – as existing readers adapt to the new devices and as new readers come of age reading mainly or exclusively from the devices. And, importantly, as reading in general is shaped by an environment of multimedia, hypermedia, multitasking, and persistent interruptions in the form of messages and various alerts. Will the habits encouraged by print persist when print loses its dominance, or will the habits encouraged by the web take over?

    It’s worth mentioning that a company like Amazon collects extensive data on how people read on a Kindle. If it shared that data, in aggregate, with researchers, we would be able to gain a fairly clear picture as to how reading habits change (or don’t change) in the years ahead. I don’t have much hope that Amazon will share that data, but it should.

    Thanks for your comment,


  4. Lloydfassett

    Ironically, I really enjoyed this post because of the links to John Updike in the NYT’s and the link there to another NYT’s article. I do have an issue with the thesis though the electronic texts are a downgrade to the reading experience, and ironically, I don’t use an e-reader yet.

    The issue I have is that e-readers don’t make you take advantage of their options. People who want ‘repose’ and an unbroken experience can still have that. That is the kind of person I am too. It’s snobby and high minded to require people to do things in a prescribed way. You and John Updike are right, but miss the mark(et).

    That’s actually a really small market. E-readers seem to best fit for the person traveling to a remote location for a year and wants to carry 100 books and can buy them all up front. That’s an ISM – Incredibly Small Market. It seems to me the e-market buyer isn’t the John Updike reader to me at all.

    The volume of e-books sold are not for repose and emotional learning, they are for escape. Same as the money in movies is in action thrillers, not slow dialogue driven things. Action thrillers can be dis-aggregated into highlights. Baseball, John Updike’s past time, can also show highlights though you miss everything important in them.

    Except when you are concerned with who won and lost, cause then you can deep dive into the nuances of some favorite game.

    The bigger issue isn’t the reading consumption experience, but how each book slots into the global digital library. John Updike was a chosen one by publishers. With a global digital library, I want to check the wisdom of his publishers by running an algorithm that suggests ‘these should be the great ones’. From that highlight list, I want to deep dive into repose and be richer for having spent my time in a deep dive that way, as opposed to the opportunity cost of having read something else.

    That beguiling smile behind Mona Lisa? It’s that for unknown reasons that one piece of art was exulted in status, but she knows that there is a huge uncatalogued world that is really only accessed by the gate keeping taste makers. She’s grinning because she knows we reverse engineered the rules to make her the winner, when given different rules we’ll end up with a different winner. She’s the representative of an a-symmetric process and only she knows the true worth of all art. Some hidden gem is somewhere in that mystical background and she ain’t giving it up.

    What we have is human selection, and it’s worked pretty well, but now we have more data and more algorithms that will let us collaborate and discover.

    Book or digital isn’t really the important part. I can get my repose and experience either way. I know that is the important part, just as I can’t send someone else out to work out for me.

  5. Nick Carr

    Lloyd, There’s no irony there. If links weren’t useful, compelling, and beguiling, we wouldn’t be discussing any of this in the first place. What you’ve just received is a nice dose of positive reinforcement, complete with a dopamine kicker, which will increase your temptation to click on the next link you come across, like maybe this one. Nick

  6. Tom Chandler

    I’ve long wondered how the algorithmic slice and dice that was performed on the Internet (reducing its words to “content” and handing most of the eyballs over to dumbed-down content farms) was going to manifest itself with ebooks.

    It appears it will arrive on a frictionless chariot…

  7. Elliotross

    A book printed over 150 years ago can still be read today. Will a digital book published today be able to be read 150 years from now? Say about 2160?

    After all, a they are still ideas and thoughts, expressed in text via a medium.

    However, let us look mat the last 40 years of history when it comes to the audio / visual world.

    45 RPM vinyl, 33 1/3 RPM vinyl, 8 Track, Cassette, DAT, Laserdisc, minidisc, betamax, VHS, CD, DVD – you name it.

    And each one not compatible with its neighbour. If you purchased music or video in these formats, each new format forced you to either throw it out, or purchase it again in the new format. (assuming the content was ever reproduced in the newer formats) In other words, for historical information, possession of a method of playing the medium is more important than the content on the medium.

    Will this be the same with books?

    Will the formats and devices that display these formats today, bear any resemblance to the formats or devices common in 150 years?

    Perhaps not.

    I am sure that pieces of work society deems to be classical works will continue their ‘translation’ from format to format over the years. But I doubt it all will.

    Perhaps in 150 years it will be more important to have the device to display or present the medium than the content on the medium itself.

    (an excerpt from A Random Thought About Books here


    Elliot Ross

  8. Cobb

    I’m an Updike reader. I read Roger’s Version when I was a sophomore in high school, so I am, now as a computer scientist, intimately familiar with the apparent contradictions described here. I not only have a Kindle, but I have an iPad as well, and I have blogged for more than Gladwell’s requisite 10,000 hours. It is this latter experience that I think the technologies supporting text and graphics have given the most revolutionary sort of change. I predict that it will show up in e-readers in a more predominating way in a short period of time.

    You see we already know that motion pictures were supposed to be a refinement and a scientific upgrade to the book. And all of us are familiar with ‘the book being better than the movie’. But what is totally new is the music video, a new form that had no precedent in the old world (for better or worse). What the e-reader may do that is completely unique has yet to be seen, but I think that the e-reader is going to resurrect the pamphlet.

    I have already seen short publications by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Fernandez and Tyler Cowen on the Kindle and I think this sort of publication will be more prevalent and influential in the future. Without having to produce large and expensive works, writers and readers will benefit from timely publications on contemporary affairs.

    I also look forward to the ability of the web to connect autodidacts, having lost all appetite for furtive glances in the stacks.

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