Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

delusions of originality

James Higgs writes:

When I buy a book, I’m buying a physical, real world object that has properties that can be appreciated beyond the words it contains. It can be beautifully bound, use attractive design elements, have respect for typography, and use the physical properties of the medium as part of the content.

For this last, I direct you to the novels of B.S. Johnson, in particular The Unfortunates, which contains a tied sheaf of booklets that can be read in any order, and Alberto Angelo, which contains holes cut into the paper to reveal hints of the contents on later pages. Neither of these techniques can be replicated on an eReader. The binding and physical form of the book is an intrinsic part of its content, rather like the frame in a Howard Hodgkin painting. (Another example: James Joyce once made a fuss over the size of a full-stop in Ulysess.) You very much should judge a book by its cover.

Saying that a book can be reduced to a screen is the same thing as saying that a JPEG of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is as good as the original. Thank heavens when we won’t be made to traipse around a physical space, but can have master works beamed into our houses, eh?

Okay. Faithful readers may recall that a few months ago I spent some time trying to decide which of my copies of Middlemarch I should read: a Penguin Classics edition, an old Oxford World’s Classics edition, a Kindle version, etc. So which one of these options was really George Eliot’s novel? Which, if any, is “the original”? After all, Mr. Higgs explains that “the binding and physical form of the book is [sic] an intrinsic part of its content,” so if I had chosen the Penguin rather than the Oxford, I would have been reading a different novel with different content, right?

But that’s just silly. There’s no doubt that each version I had available would offer me a slightly different reading experience, but that’s as far as one could reasonably go. Consider this: if two people got together to discuss Middlemarch, one of whom had read it in his Penguin paperback and the other on her Kindle, and if Mr. Higgs were granted the privilege of listening to their conversation, does he think he would be able to tell who had read what version?

He is right that there are some books that have been written with the technology of the paper codex very much in mind, and that those books have features that can’t be replicated in e-books. (On the other hand, people have written hypertext novels whose features can’t be replicated in codexes.) But the vast majority of books — including, and I would say especially, almost all novels — are capable of being transferred into many different formats, and indeed have been so transferred from the beginning. The notion that there can be an “original” version of a novel in the same way that there is an original version of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is patently wrong — unless, of course, Mr. Higgs wants to say that the only people who have ever truly read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol are the people who have read his scribbled and much-corrected manuscript.

Mr. Higgs likes codexes — variably sized, multiply colored, delightfully odorous codexes. So do I. I have strong memorial associations with many of my books and would not willingly part with them, or replace them with electronic versions. But the books I read on my Kindle are still books, and what I do with them is still reading. Attempts to deny these simple facts are misbegotten.


  • It would take some creativity to turn *Tristram Shandy* into an e-book, with its marbled and entirely-black pages, the ten 'missing' pages, and the titled chapters whose contents he postpones. Wouldn't the weirdness of these divergences seem less weird on a computer screen? Some new, non-Shandean weirdness might be required to duplicate the jolt one experiences while reading the book in codex form.

  • First editions are important because they represent the original public presentation of a book. Subsequent manifestations may vary in small or significant ways, but each represents a particular relationship between message and medium. For some (especially book historians and some literary scholars), reading Middlemarch in its original, serialized print format would be important. If one is mostly interested in the story, then the form through which it is accessed may be less important.

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