The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

The Collapse of the eReader, part 2

In part 1 (link), we looked at how the eReading device has collapsed the whole publishing process into an automated event, so only the author and the reader need be involved. Eliminating the distance between them is the first collapse.

Okay, second. The term “eBook” is skeuomorphic, referring to something we know in order to make sense of something foreign. We know what a book is, but this digital file filled with pixilated content, what is it? Because we don’t know, we continue to use outmoded ways of talking about eBooks. These habits obscure what the real differences are.

The biggest one is so obvious that it seems insignificant: It’s not a book. It’s not a physical, touchable, bound codex. What does this mean? There’s no paper, no ink, no binding, no cover, no page numbers, no thickness or thinness, no trim-size big or small. All proportions are lost.

As I said, this is obvious. But we have yet to describe what these physical characteristics mean.

There is a reason that bibliophiles are nostalgic for the smell of ink and paper, old and new; for the tactile sensation of flipping pages under your thumb; of seeing the books on your shelf with pristine or creased spines. These physical objects carry meaning, sometimes meanings we don’t or can’t articulate in words. There’s a reason we talk about love and lust when it comes to books. They are objects, and we are bodily creatures.

So what can we say about these elements? Let me limit my comments to a single kind of book: the Bible. It’s been produced in so many editions that it will serve our thinking well.

Paper: Is it rough newspaper stock or is it fine “Bible paper” that’s thin and smooth? Are the edges rough-cut or gilded. These characteristics each suggest a certain quality or style, and with it a certain value placed on the book. Is it valuable or cheap? Do I cherish it or is it disposable?

Binding/Cover: Is it leather, hardcover, softcover, some other material? Does the cover and binding protect the pages or will they be easily damaged? Again these details assert a value. This is not a subjective statement, but an objective one. There’s an intuitive link between the type of cover and the value being placed on the book. The publisher, by choosing the binding and kind of cover, communicates to the reader just how valuable they think this book is. Will you pay $7.99? $12.99? $24.99? $49.99? $79.99? more? $$$? How much is the publisher willing to invest and how much is the reader willing to pay? What is this book worth? The thresholds are higher, and limits like these give the book and its contents a certain level of value in everyone’s mind. Whether or not the book deserves such valuation is irrelevant; the cover itself states a value.

Cover design: “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” used to be a moral sentiment, but with eBooks, it’s now a fact: You can’t. Cover design communicates something about the book. It suggests genre or setting or subject matter. Is it a business book or a romance or literary fiction? Without the cover’s images and typography, a title like Staying on Top could be a business book or a sleazy romance, and Press 1 to Speak to an Operator could be a telephone manual or an experimental novel. Without covers, book titles must carry a heavier load and be more explicit (God save us from explicit romance titles). Will we go back to the early-modern book titles that seemed like paragraphs?

Heft: Let’s go with “heft” to describe the book's size and page count. I can’t think of a better one that isn’t dull like “proportions.” The heft of a book, its dimensions and its weight, also suggest certain characteristics of a book, primarily value. But they also carry a sense of how the book might be used: big and skinny—kids book; oversized—coffeetable; big and hefty—bookcase.

Clearly, the biggest loss from books to eBooks is implied value. Paper quality, binding, heft all communicate value. Cover design, meanwhile, distinguishes genres and even the book’s own sentiments; cover designs have become a language of their own that many readers speak fluently. What will be the new language in the digital environment? Logos?

In all the eReader and eBook serves as a new “symbolic environment.” They must use new symbols in place of old physical features to convey information about the digital files you are reading and purchasing. In iBooks, for instance, “turning the page” is illustrated for you with the visual appearance of a page. It’s not a page, of course, but it looks like one. In Kindles, page numbers are replaced with “locations” (some are still anchored to physical book pages). Covers are replaced with logos. Old book elements are now skeuomorphic symbols. Some are eliminated altogether.

Eventually, the transition from the book to eReader will be complete. Our ideas of what each one is will shake out, and skeuomorphic design will slowly recede as no longer needed. The “eBooks” will go native and stop using the artificial restrictions based on our ideas and designs of what a book is. After all, an eBook is no more a paperless book than a car is a horseless carriage. When we finally recognize that, maybe we’ll be able to get away from the term “eBook” altogether.

Update: A really good article from the Scientific American comparing and contrasting books and eReading devices as objects, as well as our experience of them and adaptation to them. Includes a summary of various studies and concludes by describing some of the new ways articles are adapting to digital as their native environment, reinforcing some of what I've said here.