E-books, digital lit, and the novel as transplant

Share This

In a recent video interview, Time book critic Lev Grossman discusses how the e-book is changing the way we read. He starts the interview off by lamenting the loss of a physical library, but goes on to talk about how e-readers and e-book technology represent an unprecedented shift in the way we read. He is not afraid to say that this new technology marks a change as radical as when the codex replaced the scroll. Too many point to Gutenberg’s printing press as a similar shift to the one we see now, but as he says, those shifts didn’t change the way a book was read as profoundly as the codex did. Because the book is physically different, e-reader technology might change the way we read now.

Here’s the video, which I hope you will all watch.

What We Lose By Shifting from Print to Ebooks: Lev Grossman from The Lavin Agency on Vimeo.

Some highlights:

  • Grossman says that “the market for e-books is a frictionless marketplace. Things just zip up and down it, very easily. Much in the same way, for example, videos do on YouTube.”
  • With the e-book comes changes in how we read, whether we like it or not (i.e. scrolling horizontally through continuous text instead of flipping pages, etc.). This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it will mean that novel writers will adjust to this new format. His idea of this change is that writers will write “much plottier novels.”
  • He sees the e-book as “very radical,” and that “you lose a lot of that richness” that a codex offers
  • Since the “novel as we know it evolved on the codex,” what will happen when it evolves on an e-reader?

I find Grossman’s arguments compelling, but I don’t think he goes far enough. For one, he still sees e-books as some type of transplanted novel, a print novel copied and pasted to a text-based file that is then downloaded to a plastic slab. On one level, he’s right: this is what an e-book is right now. But on another level, it’s not what I think the e-book is capable of doing.

If this is the future of reading, I’ll probably skip it. However, I’m not convinced this is the future of reading. I see the e-reader and e-book as the beginning of something truly new, that the whole concept of the novel can be totally ripped apart and reassembled. Why not exploit the technology’s full potential? Why be content with printed words on a page or screen? Equally, why be content with the “enhanced” books marketed today as something new, when they are used only as PR for the book or writer in the same way blurbs, front matter, and other supplemental materials have been used in print for years?

I propose shaking things up. I say writers and artists should use these early e-reading technologies as sandboxes for new modes of literature. It’s an idea that this blog will continue to push, and I welcome you to join me.