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eBooks: In Remembrance of Things Past?

October 6, 2011

"Haven For Us" by Casey David, CC-BY

I caught a Twitter post this morning with a link to an article on Salon.com by Paul Lafarge: “Why the book’s future never happened” (5 October). He reviews the history of hypertext narratives, and he asks why the hypertext novel has failed to supplant the conventional form, even though we are increasingly reading books on electronic devices. I added a comment (pasted below) to the those that the article had already attracted. One reader, David Cornelson, provided a link to Textfyre, a company he started to promote hypertexts, and a link to a catalog of Interactive Fiction. The comments are worth reading. In re-reading my own comment, it looks like I am calling for the end of the book. I realize that, although the book industry is not very healthy at the moment, and some would not mourn the loss of the physical artifact, others tell us that This is Not the End of the Book. But it’s hard to know for sure what will happen. We haven’t reached the last page yet.

Hi Paul

This is an excellent overview of both the past and present situation. I have most of the hypertexts that you mentioned, but I stopped collecting them years ago. Despite the horrible user interfaces and other limitations, the work seemed to speak to current cultural practices, offering a StorySpace environment in which the form and function were speaking the same language. I played with an iPad recently, and the animated page turn, with sound, depressed me. This is Re-mediation of the most regressive kind. The survival of the codex book is linked, I think, to the survival of the conventional, conservative publishing industry that produces them. Before the book can morph into new, exciting forms, the institutions, practices, and business models that underpin the publishing industry will have to change. Publishing, like broadcasting and mass education, is a “push” industry trying to survive in a “pull” environment. “What is the future of the book?” is one question. “What is the future of reading?” is better. “What is the future of writing?” is even more interesting. As we become more comfortable with blogging and micro-blogging, and as we learn to use social bookmarking and various harvesting and archiving tools, are we, perhaps, writing the future of literature without realizing it? It becomes harder to locate the book as its binding falls apart and its pages are scattered by the winds of change. As McLuhan reminds us, wall calendars show us nostalgic pictures of environments that no longer exist. Perhaps the virtual book, with its familiar boundaries and comforting sense of closure, is like those beautiful images of untouched nature on so many calendars – a tasteful tombstone memorializing something we love but have already lost.

Mark McGuire

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2011 4:58 pm

    Fascinating perspective, Mark. Ebooks are drastically altering not just the reading experience but the writing experience as well. These changes will have a profound impact on the written word, in ways we cannot even imagine yet. Some of the changes will be positive but many will inevitably be negative as well. Whether the overall impact will be positive remains to be seen.

    Thank you for this enlightening post!

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