Features of Books and e-Books

It is difficult to come up with a list of generalized features of the electronic book, because book refers to two distinct concepts. On one hand, a book is an empirically measurable type of physical object; on the other, a powerful and comprehensive type of metaphor. The book, as the phrase appears in terms like history of the book or culture of the book, inevitably simplifies a range of textual materials. Meanwhile the value of these materials (scrolls, manuscript and print codexes, newspapers, magazines, fascicles, broadsides, bound quires of manuscript poems, and unpublished archival materials) lies for many scholars in their diversity. Members of our research group study all these materials and more, and yet humanities scholarship still assigns the coordinating metaphor of the book to a number of heterogeneous texts. As a result, in many areas of the humanities the book has of necessity tended to remain an abstract, generalized idea that emphasizes common features over historical particularities. Broad histories of writing tend to group texts into major categories based on what they think of as primary technologies. Typically these categories are manuscript (including the shift from papyrus to parchment, and from scroll to codex), print (including the shift from hand-press to machine-press printing), and as of recently digital writing.

The book may be too simple a metaphor to capture all the possible forms of navigable information, but nonetheless it remains a metaphor with potency even in a digital culture. We continue to make cultural investments in structures of information that offer, as features, closure and containment matched with navigability and connectivity. A book is bounded — its covers set, its contents off from other books — and yet its text invariably refers beyond those boundaries, such that the book becomes a metaphorical stand-in for the entire bookshelf, library, or archive. Institutional models such as libraries and publishing houses likewise depend upon books as discrete units of manageable content. As bibliographers such as D.F. McKenzie have been arguing in recent years, the cultural perception of the book as a totalized unit of production is thus at odds with the heterogeneity implied by a term such as textuality; yet textuality carries none of the symbolic force of the book (McKenzie, 1999).

Our use of book throughout our discussions comes with an appreciation of the term’s ambivalence and hidden complexity: book is both an ideal and an inadequate term for our objects of study, whether manuscript, print, digital, or otherwise. The same terminological challenges arise with the term e-book, which for our purposes means not only the book-like electronic simulations of past decades, but also electronic texts generally, from transcriptions in electronic archives to born-digital electronic texts. With this sense of complexity in mind, we propose to study the features of books and e-books, not by assigning features exclusively to print or to digital textuality, but by identifying the features most at stake in the textual economy that books and e-books now form together. The most salient of these features include:

  • tangibility, or the capacity of a book to convey information about itself through physical indicators such as size and format. E-texts are often regarded as intangible, or tangible in different ways, but still possess a physicality that should be considered in their analysis (see Kirschenbaum, 2004a);
  • browsability, or the book’s ability to provide random access through tactile means such as flipping pages to move within the text – a feature amplified in digital text by speed, scale, and browsing tools such as rich-prospect browsing interfaces (Rucker, 2003), but not necessarily different in nature from browsing in print;
  • searchability, a feature available in all texts through optical scanning; searchability is aided in print reference works like dictionaries by visual formatting, lemmatization, and alphabetization; it is dramatically enhanced in machine-readable digital text by tools for algorithmic analysis and retrieval;
  • referenceability, a text’s propensity to intertextual linking (explicit or implicit), as well as the degree to which parts of a text may be referenced by other texts; in print, the addition of chapter and verse numbers to the Bible made it referencable on a more granular scale than before, while on the Web, the combination of URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) and anchor tags () allow any link to target a precise point in a web page;
  • hybridity, or the composite nature of books as being composed of various discourses, genres, sources, and textual formations; literary miscellanies and anthologies, for example, might include diverse poems of various forms, prose fiction or non-fiction, and drama by various authors; electronic forms, which are less fixed and definite, increase the possibility and likelihood of hybridity.

In drawing an analogy between printed books and e-books as artifacts, we might also consider how developments in technology enable and sometimes direct changes in the features and characteristics of the book. For example, the advent of columns and printable margins on the printing press enabled marginalia, leading to notes, which eventually became footnotes, and then (as tastes changed) endnotes. In other words, the relationship and means of connection among text, context, paratext (such as an accompanying preface or glossary), and intertext (such as a text with close thematic or allusive links to another) — verbal and non-verbal elements — has changed over time (Greetham, 1997; Maclean, 1991). Similarly, in the short history of e-books technological developments have enabled new ways of relating and linking texts. The result is a series of changes in the format and features of texts, and in how they are presented to the user. Theoretically, just as changes in marginalia changed reading practices in the early history of printing, so too changes in e-book technology affect reading practices (Slights, 2001).

Our initial research started with an investigation of how new reading platforms represented text.  In the years before the iPad and PlayBook, we explored the affordances of Yanko Design’s Reading on the Move and Polymer Vision’s Radium among other scroll-like displays; Stephano Casanova’s Projector Phone and other personal projection technology;  Softbook, the Franklin E-book, and the Sony E-book and other dedicated e-books; and the iSlate, HP Pocket PC, the OLPC laptop and other mini-PCs. The considerable change in e-readers in the intervening years necessitates scholarly inquiry into the materiality of that digital reading devices that now present and represent the human cultural record.