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

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.

Site changes and updates

Throughout the day, I have made some major changes to the layout and design of this website. First, I moved the website’s host from Blogger to WordPress, and so far, I like the options available on WordPress much more than on Blogger. Second, I have merged some old articles from one of my previous blogs, There There Kid. These articles aren’t completely relevant to the goals of this new blog, but they still represent aspects of the blog’s goals.

As I move forward with this blog, I want to establish this blog’s presence on the internet more forcefully. But for now, the new layout and a renewed focus on good writing will do fine.

Some Links


Here are some excellent articles to keep you busy this Sunday afternoon.

1. Some more links to extend the conversation about technology and books. A little bit about pushing the boundaries of the book in the digital age and in print (to keep things interesting), and a review of a fascinating book called A BETTER PENCIL: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution over at American Scientist (that just made my amazon wishlist).

2. Please read this week’s New York Times Book Review. The conversation is all about the importance of criticism. I just started reading my copy and throughout the week, I plan to write up a series of essays about the importance of criticism in the digital age as well as a review of this week’s book review. The article “Masters of the Form” is a great starting point, but also catch the cover article, which includes six critics who explore the role of criticism.

3. Two articles on work, production, and the new realities for Twenty-somethings: “The New 20-somethings: why won’t they grow up?” over at Salon, and “The Unemployment Problem is a Little Bit Structural” over at The Atlantic.

4. Something random: I’m fascinated with great articles exploring new cultural phenomenon. This article on the new Oprah Winfrey Network at Salon is a great read.

I’ll be back later to kick off a discussion of the NYTBR. Follow us on twitter for other random ephemera throughout the day.

Press Inquiry

We are always looking for intelligent and entertaining ideas for our growing community here at Critical Margins. If you are promoting a book, author, or story idea and would like to send it our way, just let us know.

Contact the editor, Kevin Eagan, at kevin[at]criticalmargins[dot]com if you have a story idea. We can’t guarantee that your story idea will be accepted, but send us your pitch or press release and we will consider it.

If you are interested in becoming a writer, please visit our submissions page.

Submissions and Contributions

We are always looking for intelligent writers who are willing to provide exceptional analysis of book culture, particularly as it relates to technology and the culture at large. Right now, we are most interested in reviews writers, but are also looking for feature writers. We can’t offer much right now in terms of compensation except to say that writing for Critical Margins will give you a chance to experience the rough and tumble of internet publishing and to gainrecognition and respect from peers along the way.

Here are some details of the types of articles we are always looking for:

Reviews: In general, review articles will be between 500 to 1,200 words long. Since we are a startup organization, we’re open on what types of books you choose to review, but we are especially interested in reviews of books published exclusively (or primarily) on reading devices such as the Kindle or iPad. We also want reviews of books published by independent and small presses.

Features or news: These articles are open to many possibilities. Since our focus is on book technology, keeping up with the latest developments in the world of publishing might elicit an original idea. Also, we’d love to hear from people interested in theoretical or scholarly approached to publishing and book technology that can write about such things in short, easy to understand pieces.

If you’d like to pitch a feature or become a regular review writer, please e-mail the editor, Kevin Eagan, at kevineagan@gmail.com