The e-reader has emerged as controversial textual object in the 21st century. Both the e-reader and the standard book contain mostly the same text within (though often with some exceptions such as the cover page/publisher/authors note/etc) yet the reception to each one is, both on a personal and societal level, vastly different. Historically, new textual forms have received either skeptism, scorn, or both. This goes back as far as Socrates’ criticism of the written word due to its perceived adverse influences on memory, to Jane Austen’s strongly held beliefs about the impact of various formats of books, to today; while e-readers are undeniably popular and profitable, there is nevertheless a strong chorus of those who believe they are somehow a step below the paper book.
Apart from historical precedence, more than anything else the adversity towards the modern e-reader seems to stem from how the text physically manifests itself. Once again, though containing largely the same text within, the physical experience of reading the same story on an e-reader and on a book is radically different. One thing that may be similar is the size of the book, as they are often produced to resemble the standard size of a book (perhaps around the size of an octavo or quarto) though some may be smaller (if one spends less money) and some larger (maybe not quite up to the size of a folio; regardless, larger than average paper book if one is willing to spend more money). The font of the text is also similar to the texts found in the paper book; on the Kindle, there is an unspecificed font with the name “Publisher’s Font”–perhaps an allusion to or subtle reminder of the fact that Kindles do, indeed, get their roots from the paper book.
Beyond those two physical qualities, however, virtually nothing else is similar in the physicality of the e-reader and the physicality of the book. The book is soft in ones’ hands, gets worn down all the time and often has maybe even a mild odor. The e-reader, on the other hand, is smooth, hard, emotes a particular light wavelength and is generally thinner and more lightweight than the average paper book. The contrast between the physical form of the e-reader and the paper book is hugely important when attempting to understand the cultural impact and subsequent results of the e-reader. While reading from a technological source, it both memory and attention are impacted. Partially due to these facts, although also due to the social narrative around the paper book versus the e-reader, there has been a relatively widespread public conversation about how technology, and in this case specifically e-readers, are negatively impacting mental fortitude in several ways. The physical format of the e-reader literally produces a different reaction in the brain than the paper book. Thus, the format is hugely important.
The format of the e-reader is not only controversial due to the physical impacts of the human mind. In recent years, a sense of elitism (once again, similar to Austen’s arguably elitist view of some formats of books being better than others; for example, preferring octavos over cortos) over the paper book and e-reader has developed. The paper book, even by younger generations today, denotes to some an implicit superiority over the e-reader; the idea of “logging off” or “disconnecting” has become more popular as a pushback towards an increasingly technological world. Though e-readers are of course more expensive than paper books, meaning sales of them may generally swing towards those of an upper socioeconomic class, it actually appears to be those of the an upper socioeconomic class (or at least those who are receiving or who have received some form of higher education) who are pushing back the most against e-readers. This appears to demonstrate that the narrative around a given format can be almost as impactful as the benefits or drawbacks of using the format of text itself. As novel reading is increasingly seen as more of a moralistic choice, rather than simply a means of entertainment, so does the way a person reads this novel–it is not good enough to merely read; for some, a text must be read “in the right way”. The concept of anxiety around formats of text was demonstrated in several ways throughout the readings: with the letters from Austen, of course, but also simply when the novel itself was being developed and ran in its initial serialized format and was thus looked down on. The telegraph, too, produced initial anxiety with all of its benefits, mostly in the adjustment people had to make in terms of communication. The e-reader in fact offers a direct window to communication–unless disconnected from WiFi, the e-reader is not a pure escape in that they can still be reached through othr apps someone is likely to download (Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, etc.) While the paper novels arguably provided more of an immersive experience into the world depicted within, and though it is of course possible to immerse into a novel with the e-reader, the constant communication and distraction offered by competing apps on the e-reader detract from this. Thus, a communicative element is inserted in the novelistic text found within the format of the e-reader that (largely) did not exist within the paper novel–and certainly not the instant communication that is possible with the e-reader. The following quote from James Gleicks’ The Information, though not referring to the novel, seems an apt way to describe the anxiety and current social narrative around new formats of text or of the novel:
People needed consciously to divorce their conception of the message from the paper on which it was written” (Gleick 151)
Interestingly, though the sales of e-readers have indeed fallen in recent years, smart phones and other devices where books can be read on a screen largely have not, and e-reader sales overall have not stagnated to the point of really putting the industry in danger (despite what some sensationalistic articles might claim). Perhaps this indicates that, as has been seen historically, the social narrative around new formats of text–including the e-reader or Kindle–can be more pervasive than the effects on the format itself. That said, social narrative around a new format do lend themselves to the advent or decline of a technology, specifically here a format of text, and the example of the distinctly modern e-reader is no different.
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