Aspects of the Book

1. Material Aspects of the Book
2. Symbolic Aspects of the Book
3. Formal Aspects of the Book

1. Material Aspects of the Book

Understanding the material aspects of the book is a crucial pre-condition to developing e-books. The very name “e-book” alerts us to this fact. When the movable-type press created the opportunity for mass producing texts, its operators worked hard to make books look like manuscripts. It took many decades for books to move beyond being mechanically produced manuscripts. E-books could suffer from a similar (if likely shorter) developmental lag unless we attend closely to the processes and products that have, over the 500 years of print culture, made books what they are. Revising the printed book into electronic format while keeping to the conventions of print is not the best use of our resources. Our culture will be better served by imagining a more radical departure from the printed volume. To help ourselves make this leap, we might juxtapose the set of practices carried out in producing printed texts and the set of similarly-aimed practices necessary for the production of electronic texts.

To discuss the material aspects of the book, then, is to discuss not only paper, ink, formatting, binding and content, but also the processes that must be brought to bear in order to produce a book. Before the paper can be folded to create a folio, quarto, or octavo, it must first be manufactured as a broadsheet or as a roll. Before early modern paper could be manufactured, a slurry had to be prepared from pulped linen, lime, and water. Today, wood fibre or recycled material must be pulped through a process that is partially mechanical and partially chemical. In the early days, paper, vellum or papyrus was used to enable the circulation of a written text, each with its own production processes. Before these media, there was wax; before wax, stone dash and it should be noted that this skeletal history is decidedly Western in its slant.

Changing means of production fundamentally alter cultural notions of authorship, readership, and literary form. For example, the substantial cost of the materials required to produce the early printed book necessitated selective publication according to any number of criteria (content quality, author’s status, marketability, and so on). The cost of the end product also determined the readership of printing materials: as technological developments reduced production costs, readership expanded and changed, as did the kinds of books that were produced. With the advent of machine-made paper, for example, periodical and newspaper publication proliferated in the nineteenth century (Rose, 1995). Another consequence of reduced printing costs was the emergence of the so-called popular press. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, smaller and cheaper books, chapbooks, pamphlets and broadsheets brought a new demographic to the book market. This in turn enabled new means of influence upon the reading public in sociopolitical matters such as religion, and new forms of writing to meet the interests of an increasingly diverse reading public (Chartier, 1994; Spufford, 1982; Watt, 1991). Conversely, electronic publishing began with a cost advantage over print production. Many forms of e-books are already comparatively cheap to produce, and they do not require a large infrastructure of dedicated printers, editors, and publishers. Consequently, what used to be known on the internet (with a certain amount of stigma) as self-publishing is now the norm. Selective publication is no longer necessitated by technology or economics. This new means of production forces a reassessment of cultural assumptions about authorship, readership, genre, accessibility, and usability (including quality control and censorship).

2. Symbolic Aspects of the Book

The concepts of e-book and electronic text can be defined in many ways. Most traditional definitions are based on the functional and material characteristics of e-book technology. From this perspective, e-books are defined by the following characteristics:

  • they are electronically searchable;
  • they are dynamic in terms of content updateability;
  • they are adaptable in terms of cross-platform portability;
  • they are physically portable;
  • they are user-interactive; and
  • they are non-sequential – assuming that their reading process uses hypertext technology.

E-books are currently available in various formats, such as HTML, CHM, PDF, djVU, LIT, and others; most e-book formats allow for multilinear navigation. So, hypertextuality seems to be a characteristic feature of e-book technologies. However, most of the work on hypertext has considered it from a technological perspective: most of the time hypertext is explained in terms of nodes, links, markup language, and so on. Hypertextuality has a substantial impact on the symbolic aspects of the way we read texts, but very few research initiatives have tried to formalize this, especially from a semantic point of view.

Hypertextuality may be an important feature of e-book technologies, but hypertexts themselves are heterogeneous, and can be defined from many perspectives. For instance, the concept of hypertext can be defined as a hardware- or software-based computer technology, or as an abstract textual structure. For example, in the lexical database Wordnet, hypertext is defined as machine-readable text that is not sequential but is organized so that related items of information are connected. Although incomplete, this definition is a very good example of hypertext as an abstract textual structure.

Formal hypertext models can offer tools for an understanding of hypertextuality’s main characteristics, but they can also neglect the importance of the user (the reader in the context of e-book technology), particularly when the objective is to understand and model the meaning of hypertext. The challenge is to model or formalize both e-books and hypertextuality, as the latter is one of the former’s main characteristics, at the same time taking the reader into consideration as an interpretative agent.

3. Formal Aspects of the Book

One formal aspect of the book is that it is more than can be consumed in a single visual event. This distinguishes a book from a pamphlet, which could conceivably be seen in its entirety by a reader holding the pamphlet open while standing in front of a mirror. The reader could read the inside two pages of the pamphlet, and could at see and possibly read the backwards-appearing front and back covers of the pamphlet, without having to manipulate the pamphlet further. A book has a more complex form — one that, no matter how simple the content, can never be seen all at the same time.

Translated into the electronic environment, this might suggest a distinction such as that between a single webpage and a website (which is a collection of web pages). Although it would be ugly, a book may be transformed into a single webpage. There is nothing inherent in the form of the book that demands it be translated into a multi-page website.

This may or may not suggest a genuine problem. If one holds that the e-book is inherently more complex than its print counterpart, then the above seems to provide support for their argument. If, on the other hand, one is not inclined to view the print book as less complex, then she might point to the inadequacy of the analogy (for one thing, the ratio of webpage to website is not comparable to the relationship between pamphlet and book).

In addition to length, there are other formal properties typically associated with books. There is, for instance, the cover — the upper and lower boards, and the spine — which plays a role in communicating the contents. We say that a book cannot be judged by its cover precisely because the natural human response to covers is to use them to judge books. Designers use this tendency to communicate various kinds of information, such as genre, author and title, publisher, and often something about the narrative content. Immediately beneath the cover are the pages that constitute the front matter. These reiterate in more standardized formats some of the suggestions made by the cover, and provide additional information such as the metadata required for cataloguing, as well as an outline of the contents.

Once we enter the body of the text, we address a number of issues relating to formal properties. If we begin with only words in a sequence, we see significant layers of design that go into building the main text. Conventions of page layout leave extra room, for instance, for holding the book without obscuring any text, as well as for binding. Page numbers are sequential, so that the pages can be easily accessed non-sequentially using a table of contents or an index. Sequential page numbers also orient the reader as to roughly how far along she is in the book.

Experimentally developed over centuries, these conventions are now subject to remediation in the digital environment. We have an opportunity to reconsider them, and to decide which are important enough to keep and which have become irrelevant. We have also the chance to extend and elaborate on the features that are most valuable, reconceiving them in ways impossible in print. Electronic searching is one such enhancement; hyperlinking is another.