“Digital technology could be the most revolutionary thing since the discovery of fire–at least, for books.” -Bob Stein
In a recent episode of Ideas called “Opening the Book”, Paul Kennedy interviews several scholars and publishers on the future of print media and the recent shift to electronic readers. The podcast covers several topics related to bibliographic studies: notably, the difficulty in defining the term ‘book’ in a digital era, as well as the malleable and fluid nature of electronic texts. As Sue Martin (professor of English at La Trobe University, Melbourne) suggests, the explosion of literacy, immense serialization, and increasing availability of information and cheap paper in the Victorian period parallels, in some ways, current anxieties surrounding the proliferation of electronic texts: what information is available, who has access to it, and how it’s being used. The discussion drifts towards questions of authorship, as participants note a shift from stable, directed authorship towards a more fluid, process-driven, and collaborative (writer + reader) production of texts. Bob Stein (founder and co-director of the New York Institute For the Future of the Book) also raises the fascinating possibility of a book ‘flip-flop’ phenomenon: that is, the possibility of moving the book-as-object from the physical (tangible) realm to the digital; from word-processor to printer, printer to scanner, and scanner to digital archive again–revealing, Stein argues, the fundamental instability of all texts, and the fallacy of the ‘book’ as a stable object and authentic referent. The “Opening the Book” podcast references a number of current projects, such as the youversion of the Bible (which allows users to annotate individual lines in the scriptures) and the ship adrift project (a site which maps the progress of a virtual ship, programmed by James Bridle, using a “broken hybrid of spam and webby language” and the works of Joseph Conrad). The Ideas episode raises a number of important questions about the future of reading:
i) What qualifies as a ‘book’? Does our nostalgia for the print era colour our approach to digital textuality?
ii) What constitutes as reading? How does one ‘read’ a text like a ship adrift or even gaming marginalia? Is gaming a sub-genre of digital literature, or a new form of textuality?
iii) Is reading, as Bob Stein suggests, “fundamentally social” (see livemargin.com)? Are networked books the future of reading, where our minds (rather than our bodies) are in the same place–inside a book together?