e-book vs. traditional: the past and future of reading and writing

Posted on July 25, 2011 by


I was going to write something about the Civil War yesterday, but opted for another direction. The in-process Civil War related post remains in the hopper, and will see the light of day… or rather… the back-lit screen, soon enough.

What seems to catch my attention even more, however, are recent developments in the book industry. Not at all boasting, but I saw it coming, especially after having gone through my more recent graduate program. Yet, it seems to be progressing much faster than I anticipated. Certainly, there would come a day when we would begin to see the decline of the traditional book, and see the e-book grow in leaps and bounds. Still, others saw it coming much earlier. John Tolva, sixteen years ago, wrote about it in his article, “The Heresy of Hypertext”. There are also others who saw it coming as well, especially those who wrapped their minds around hypertext theory, and the concept of the electronic writing space.

But then, it’s not just the gradual disappearance of the traditional book that is significant. It’s also the way it impacts the way we read… and I don’t just mean whether that be by an external light source (as in the case of reading a book), or an internal light source (the example of the e-book). It changes much, much more.

In fact, whether one wishes to admit it or not, if they are already familiar with navigating the Web, they have already gone through a significant phase in reader evolution… the first phase of being re-trained for the e-book. That’s right, the machine is training you. I won’t give a guess at how many picked-up on the concept of Web navigation without having taken a course, but suspect the number is higher than that for those who took courses to learn about Web navigation, and this is why I say the machine is training you. You may feel that you learned the system, rather than having been trained by it. But, like an electronic tool of Pavlov’s, has it not conditioned you? You do one thing, and you learn that you are rewarded; you do another, and you may find no reward at all… or worse. With each depression of a key, or click on a hyperlink, you began to find rewards and benefits that appeal to you, and, over time, you became better skilled in maintaining the system of rewards, and satisfaction. In some ways, it’s a matter of survivability, and essential that you conform to the machine’s systems, as new explorers in a new frontier, on your personal quest for… something… many things.

Of course, in the process of doing so, did you ever realize the potential threat this caused to the traditional process of reading? Well, not only reading, but writing. Indeed, if you write, did you ever consider this new process a threat to the manner in which you write for the reader?

What Halio and Adler fear is not that future writers will revert to pictograms but rather that the traditional modes of textual composition that stress linearity, closure, and containment are being eroded from the inside out by the visually-based compositional aids themselves.

Yet, what does that mean, really? Are we at the end of linear presentations; will there no longer be closure in the works that we read? What impact upon the manner in which one reads? How have the expectations of the reader changed, with the electronic platform?

Yes, expectations.

In the electronic space, do you not expect certain things that you do not, otherwise, with traditional books? Of course you do.

What does this mean to the writer? Is it not time to revamp our thinking about how we write… for the space in front of us… for the audience that reads within that same space? Do you still write for print, even when you are writing in the electronic space? (… and I’ll add here, while important, adding mere hyperlinks isn’t the end-all in writing for the electronic space…).

So, where does this lead to? What about historians? Have you, as a historian, become too comfortable in the traditional presentation of history, for print? Are you still writing for ink on paper, alone?

There are, indeed, programs that introduce historians to the digital world, but are they enough?

It’s ironic, but as prone as we are, now, to read in the electronic space, English undergraduate programs have yet to reach the point where they teach the masses how to present in the electronic environment, and only a limited number of English graduate students are introduced to it (and usually, only because they select a particular path). Then how, as historians, can we expect to be prepared to meet the change… to take advantage of the change?

We stand on an interesting, fascinating threshold, but I’m afraid the machine is moving faster than our preparations. It is time to master the machine… the electronic space… as opposed to allowing it to master us.

Merely a toe back in the water, but… ahhhh, I’ve missed writing about this stuff…