A sad, dull, pedestrian take on e-books

Illustration by Joon Mo Kang which accompanies the article.

Why, oh why, do the very people who ought to be the most gripped by the possibilities that new things open up so often fall into a defensive wishful thinking? The latest example concerning e-texts (though already the author has blinkered his vision by focusing only on e-books)1 was pointed to by Jonathan Robinson (on FB).

It’s a really well-written article that is on the whole simple and (when dealing with history) fairly accurate. But novelist Lev Grossman when thinking about: The Mechanic Muse: From Scroll to Screen (the title of his NY Times piece) fails to imagine a move from print to screen, but instead restricts himself to the current woeful capabilities of e-books. By limiting his imagination in this way he can conclude:

But if we stop reading on paper, we should keep in mind what we’re sacrificing: that nonlinear experience, which is unique to the codex. You don’t get it from any other medium — not movies, or TV, or music or video games.

Which is about as bananas as you can hope for. It is demonstrably factually inaccurate. To suggest that computer games sacrifice “nonlinear experience” suggests he has even less experience of such games than I have! But beyond that to suggest that e-books sacrifice the non-linear reading that codexes allow is plain daft. Admittedly current e-book devices seem woefully limited in how they exploit the possibilities of non-linear reading (and writing). But such limitations are not inherent in the electronic medium. They seem to be built into e-books to make them familiar, and so acceptable, to cautious change-phobic readers like Lev, by mimicking the difficulties the codex entails.

A true e-text not only has hyperlinks, either built in or generated on the fly, it has interactivity so that readers can communicate with each other about their reading experiences, it is searchable, bookmarkable, one can add comments and notes without defacing the medium… In fact it offers everything the paper codex offers except the limitations and sensual attractions of paper itself, and then adds huge and exciting new possibilities.

What a shame that an author’s fear of having to learn to WRITE differently should give him a platform to infect readers with his own fear of the new. Surely a good writer ought not only to have capacity for wrangling words, but also an imagination?

I wonder what Lev Grossman’s novels “The Magicians” and “The Magician King” are like? If they are as empty of imagination and daring as his article suggests, they must be sad, dull, pedestrian things. Perhaps the poor man does indeed have a merely “Mechanical Muse”?

  1. An e-book is a current delivery vehicle for e-texts usually based on texts delivered also in other [print] forms thought of as the primary form. []

One comment on “A sad, dull, pedestrian take on e-books

  1. mgvh

    Hi, Tim! Not so amazingly, we think very much alike! One of my students pointed me to this on FB, and I responded just like you did, saying:
    Ok, I get the argument, but I don’t think that the format is the problem. The problem is that we are still trying to impose a codex/book format on the digital tablet. We need to be rethinking how to take advantage of the digital delivery system. Sure, the codex was a great idea, but it wasn’t until somebody thought about creating a table of contents, adding page numbers and footnotes, and including indices that it really became a useful nonlinear format. I realize that it takes time for new technologies to be adopted. During the transition, the new format is going to have to be familiar enough to old tech people that they can use it. Eventually the new tech will gain prominence IF its advantages are explored and utilized.
    And I pointed to this classic video: http://youtu.be/pQHX-SjgQvQ