Critical Mass

Adventures in E-Reading: Guest Post from Martin Riker

By Martin Riker

Over the next month or so we're going to be offering a new series of guest posts (read the first series,”The Next Decade in Book Culture here). Our question: How are you handling the rise of the e-book? Are you reading on Kindle, the Sony Reader, the Vook, have you reserved an iPad?  Are you buying e-books? Reading e-galleys? And how's it working out for you? Let us know your quibbles, quirks, happy and not so happy adventures in e-reading. NBCC member Martin Riker, associate director of Dalkey Archive Press, shared these thoughts on the subject at the NBCC “Rise of the E-Book”  panel at the Early Spring Literary Festival at the University of Illinois,Champaign-Urbana.

These really are just thoughts. I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen with e-books.

The title of this panel, “The Rise of” etc., suggests a historical inevitability, and I don’t think that’s quite accurate. You’ll recall that not too long ago Amazon couldn’t give the Kindle away. It’s been more of a raising than a rise; a lot of money has been spent to create a demand where one did not obviously exist before. This is neither here nor there in terms of accessing the value of the e-book as a mechanism for reading, but it’s worth bearing in mind when we try to guess at what the future impact on the culture is likely to be.

Demand was created, a little demand. Mostly what was created was a lot of hype in the publishing industry, having much more to do with guesses about what the role of the e-book might be in the future than what the actual effect is now. But hype-driven change is just as real as consumer-driven change, and I think it’s pretty much certain that this change will continue apace.

What the change will be is a real question mark, though, because it’s not just the “rise of the e-book” that’s going on, it’s the collapse (or at least the massive sag) of the economy, and of the book industry within the economy, and also the rise of various other technologies, including print-book technologies such as print-on-demand, which, like the e-book, potentially bypasses a lot of the book industry’s current infrastructure. Watching the rise of the e-book is a little like watching a basketball game with three teams on the court.

One thing I think we can say about the changes is that, like the rise of the e-book itself, they will not be driven primarily by customer demand. What we read from, and how we read, are likely to change more because of developments in the book industry and its related institutions than because of enthusiasms on the part of readers. It seems to me this is widely understood in the book industry, which is of course in the midst of a massive reshaping. I don’t think the e-book is responsible for this reshaping—if anything, the inverse: this reshaping is responsible for all the hype about the e-book—but I do think the e-book has come to stand as the symbol of an industry-wide identity crisis, and I think this symbolism has the power to effect real change in the world.

In fact, the e-book is probably just a transitional technology anyway, created and marketed toward people who feel comfortable with print books and need to be eased in. Even the word “book” is a somewhat vestigial-seeming way to describe a very handy portable computer. But younger generations don’t or won’t have the same attachment to print books and so that association will fade.

As we do come to adopt these new mechanisms of reading, the norms of writing will change as well. Since, historically speaking, changes in technology have always changed the forms of discourse (the book itself being a rather obvious example, allowing as it did for the “rise” of the extended narrative form we call the novel) it seems inevitable that literary art will once again change. The linear extended narrative as a form will probably move into the background, as writers begin to explore the artistic potentials of this new narrative space. When this will happen or how, I of course don’t know. But novelists are already talking about inclusion of dynamic graphics in a text, for example, or new means of making a text interactive for the reader. Virtual space allows for a sort of literal “spatial” movement of a narrative (in the sense Joseph Frank described in his book on “spatial form”) and you might end up seeing more of that. I would not be surprised if in the near future the difference between a very smart video game and a very interactive “novel” is not much difference at all.

Which, again, is neither good nor bad.

For Dalkey Archive Press, the rise of the e-book promises to be mostly a good thing, in fact. We’re a nonprofit organization whose mission is to maintain a space in the culture where certain kinds of artistically excellent but commercially marginalized writers can still be read and discussed. Printing books is just a means to this end, and if new technology can make our mission as an organization easier or more affordable to accomplish, then that is something we will take advantage of.

A different but related issue is the apparent movement of reading itself from a primarily solitary to a largely social activity, a change that is not inherent in the new technologies but one that the internet and e-books certainly facilitates. I do think it’s true that the historical moment we live in is experiencing a major shift in intellectual production and distribution on par with the invention of the printing press, but the technology is not the most important element of that shift. More than technological changes, more even than changes in how we write, I think the possibility of fundamental changes in how we read is the biggest issue on the table. And here I’m more conservative, because I feel strongly that the gradual loss of the contemplative space of solitary reading—if it ever comes to that, and whether or not the e-book plays some role in it—would be an enormous loss to the experience of being human.