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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Monday, November 22, 2010

James Bradley on the fate and fortune of the book

Over at City of Tongues, James Bradley has a post on the future of books (I like his choice of illustration for it). Abridged large sample:

In part this is an argument about the material culture of the book, and the material culture of the tablet computer or ereader, and about the complex web of relationships and assumptions that shape our experience of text on a page and text on a screen. But it’s also about the way the medium shapes the message, and about the way our desire to replicate an old technology with a new one reveals a failure to come to grips with the real possibilities of the new. Think for a moment about the silly page-turning animations ereaders insist on inserting: aren’t they really the textual equivalent of curtains on a television? Indeed why do we need to retain the notion of the “page” at all? Why can’t text just continue down as we read, like a scroll? And if it did, what would this do to the metaphors and devices we use to shape and organise information, the chapters and sections of the analog world?

Part of the problem is the fact that codex books feel so natural to us we forget they are themselves a technology. An extremely successful one to be sure (indeed if one wanted a test of true technological success it might well be precisely this capacity to disappear, to be subsumed and naturalised into the culture). And like any technology they use us just as we use them, shaping not just the way we consume information but the way we think. Many of our important narrative forms – the novel, for instance, or narrative non-fiction – are forms which depend in fundamental ways on the physical nature of the codex book, and its emphasis upon linearity, closure, as well as the more subtle questions about page length and internal organisation I alluded to above.

This question is usually framed as one about literary form, a David Shieldsesque argument against the hegemony of the unifying narrative. But I’d suggest we need to take it a step further. Because as I’ve said before, if we’re reading books on a device that can handle video and sound, how long will it be before publishers and creators start taking advantage of those possibilities?


But I think it also makes it necessary to question some of the assumptions underpinning what ebooks are, and what they mean for literary culture and publishing more generally. Because while I’m less convinced than I was a year or two ago that long-form narratives like the novel and narrative non-fiction are going to go the way of the dinosaurs, I do think they’ll change, and that just as the novel evolved to take advantage of the codex book new forms will evolve to take advantage of tablets and ereaders.

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