How, Where, Why Did the E-Book Get Its Start?

If you think about it, the digitization of books should have come as no surprise. Digitzation of music preceded the digitization of text by about 10 years (1982). And, in the ways that music changed as a result, we can see we simliar effects in the ways that text changed when digitized. At bottom, nothing changed: we still have music; we still have text. But the medium — the vehicles that carried music and text — changed radically.

The most obvious change was that things got smaller (hence, “Compact Dics”). Miniaturization is a product of technological “advances.” We are able to enjoy small music playuers, for instance, because we replaced the trainsitor (about the size of a cough drop) with the silicon chip (about the size of a pencil point). In electronics, Moore’s Law states that every two years we double our ability to miniaturize electronic components. Since 1965, this law has held true — which is why telephones, computers, and other devices grow smaller in size and larger in memory every year.

The upside to music’s miniaturization was that we could fit a lot more music on storage media. Such increased portability enabled music lovers to more easily reproduce music and share it. At first, the most obvious downside was that we lost the album cover. Sure, there was still album art but it was so tiny, it seemed to lose its impact. In the heydey of album art (1967-1987), the album cover was often sumptuously produced with sophisticated graphics and pages of texts and photos, as well as premiums, like posters and other paper artifacts. Its successor, the CD cover, could hardly compete. Ultimately, as we all know, internet dowloads pretty much replaced the CD, even though nearly all musicians continue to release their music on CDs.

In the early 1990s, we started digitizing texts to make them more portable and convenient on the internet. The grandparent of the e-book was the PDF (“Portable Document Format”). As you know, a PDF allows you to share a document that nobody can alter. Because of its “finished” nature, the PDF (and a few other formats like it) seemed more like a publication than other every-day word-processed documents, which seemed more draft-like, since anybody could fiddle with a copy. By the late 1990s, book-length PDF documents were commonly shared online, usually by academics and other researchers. It seemed only nature, to some, that we should publish books in a similar format.

Is This A Revolution?

e-bookIt is interesting to note that the first warnings issued about the e-book — in an anthology titled Tolstoy’s Dictaphone — was published in 1996, before the invention of the e-book as we know it. At the time, the CD-ROM was all the rage. The Compact Disc Read-Only Memory was (and still is) a high-volume digital storage medium. (It has since been overtaken by an even higher-volume medium, the DVD.) Most people became acquainted with CD-ROMs as dispensers of computer software. Soon there were dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference works offered on CD-ROMs. And then other books.

At this point, circa 1996, book lovers took notice and sounded an alarm. The alarm seemed warranted because the growth of the internet and the proliferation of computers were astounding. Clearly, the transmission of information was changing radically. One of the biggest fears among critics of the e-book was the advent of “hypertext.” In computer parlance, “hypertext” simply means a link that takes the reader from one web page to another. But, in its new permutation, “hypertext” meant a text placed on the internet for any and everybody to contribute to, edit, and alter.

Hypertext was supposed to be the next great thing in writing — writers were going to submit their books online and other writers (or anybody, for that matter) were going to add to and alter those texts. The result was going to be an ever-changing, thoroughly unpredictable writing adventure. But the great hypertext experiment never came to pass. Why? Promoters of hypertext underestimated the power of our capitalist culture, which places a premium on individuality and, more specifically, individual work and individual products. Americans revere the entrepreneur and are fiercely protective of individual enterprise. That’s why, generally speaking, Americans aren’t eager to share. Ours has never been a communal culture. This accounts for the success of gambling, reality TV, and so many other ventures that celebrate the individual.

That said, one hypertext experiment did prevail: Wikipedia. It has been successful, in part, because it’s a non-profit, educational resource. Also, it is tightly monitored by a board of editors.

To guage the newness and fear bound up in the growth of the internet, you have only to consider the Y2K debacle. Many predcited that when the new millenium arrived and the calendars turned to “2000,” every computer in the world would crash because — alledgedly — programmers had not built in any adjustments to accommodate the new date. Computers were programmed only to record a two-digit date, like “98” or “99.” What happens when we get to “00” and it should read “2000”? Billions were spent on quick fixes and back-ups and insurance. But, then, when the the millenium arrived, nothing bad happened. In fact, nothing happened at all.

Early criticism of the e-book focused on the loss of the book as artifact and, in turn, the loss of the reader’s tactile, very personal involvement with that artifact: surely, such loss cannot be a good thing. Some of this criticism drew its inspiration from Marshall McCluhan, as earlier cultural critic (1911-80) who famously said, “The medium is the message.” McCluhan was talking about how new media, like television, subsumes any message it seems to convey. The TV itself — that flashy, heavily advertised window on the world — is the real message and watching TV is all it asks of its viewers. Understanding of the programs or the ideas those programs convey is secondary.

Critics of the e-book see the internet in a similar light: it makes itself more important that the messages it conveys. It is, at bottom, a huge distraction, fraught with ads and mindless entertainment. As a result, it can’t possibly replicate the intimate, uninterupted relationship that the reading a book offers.

Facebook is a good example of this medium-is-the-message phenomenon: ostensibly, FB is our friend, offering us free and easy access to our online pals and all kinds of handy buttons to articulate our preferences and opinions. It seems to save us time because of the broad access it offers. But, actually, it consumes far more time than it saves because it has made “friending” a job. As a result, we now spend hours a day trying to keep up with our many “friends” who are not really friends but, rather, are mostly distant acquaintances, if that. FB makes daily demands of us to acknowledge the birthdays of these near-strangers, to like their photos or quotes of the day or latest cravings, then to post something ourselves so that we feel sufficiently sociable and part of the group. And, all the while, FB is plying us with ads and come-ons in every corner of the page. At the same time, it is culling our personal information for targeted marketing. In short, FB is not serving us, we are serving it.

The e-book issue raises questions about what we value as a culture. As one commentator put it: “When we ask about the future — the fate — of the book, I interpret this to mean not just the artifact, but a whole kind of sensibility. Questions about the futre are, really, larger questions about outselves. How will we live. Who wikll we be? What will be the place of the private self in the emergent scheme of things?”

Kindle Lights A Fire

Amazon introduced its Kindle e-book reader in 2007. Apple introduced its Ipad in 2008. Barnes and Noble introduced its Nook e-reader in 2009. We are now seeing the third or fourth iterations of these reading devices, with the promise of many more to come. There are more than one milliion e-books available on Amazon (and nearly twice that number available in books). It seems that the rapid increase in the number of e-books will continue for some time.

The obvious advantage of e-readers is their convenience: they store hundreds, even thousands, of titles and they download e-books in seconds. They are also green, paying for their carbon footprint after downloading about 85 books. The disadvantages are that they offer only linear access (ironically no random access) and they are not as tactily involving as books, making it difficult to write notes in them, for example.

That so many would fear the disappearance of books as a result of the e-book’s popularity may say more about a long-seated insecurity about literate activity in general than about the actual effects of this new technology. It may be, too, that these arguments have peaked and that it is just a matter of time before e-readers eclipse the book. In any case, we must acknowledge that, with the exception of the last decades of the nineteenth century, reading has never been a mainstream activity and books themselves have, until recently, been costly items, accessible mostly to those with money and leisure. E-readers, which are relatively pricey electronic devises, do not change this fact in any way.

Ironically, it may be argued that the e-book has democratized literate activity as nothing else has since the invention of moveable type. Nowadays, anybody can be a published writer by uploading a book to Amazon — for free. All one needs is the software to convert a text to one of the e-reader formats. Nearly twenty years ago, cultural critic Sven Birkets warned, “In the theoretically infinite database, all work is present and available — and, in a way, equal.” This “leveling of hierarchy” is indeed happening, as your book can stand beside Hemingway’s on the virtual shelf of Amazon and other online booksellers.

Increasingly, mainstream publishers are losing their cache as professional writers seek alternatives, including e-publishing their books themselves. Readers and writers are undermining traditional avenues of criticism and book reviewing by running their own review sites, such as Good Reads. Independent book-review bloggers
have proliferated, And nearly all of the major book store chains have gone out of business, leaving the field to the small independents who fill local niches. And still, we publish more books now than ever before (approx. 300,000 new titles in 2011).