Sunday, January 27, 2013

Week 4: History of the Book

As you know, we changed our schedule by a week so although we're technically in week 4, we're looking at the topics listed in week 3.
Image from Octave Uzanne, The End of Books. The University of Adelaide.

It’s not just about the printing press! The history of the book presents us with a complete, observable communications revolution. The historical record allows us to examine the whole of a vast socio-cultural, political, and economic change over a period of some three to five hundred years (depending on whose perspective you prefer). By following the developments in manuscript and print book production, tied to the changes in the technologies used to produce those texts, we can also chart the various changes in social organization, politics and economics. 
“Can books only exist in the paper-printed media? Can the text be separated from paper to be reused as a book through digital media? Is such a discussion relevant to the subject of books?”

Some key ideas to consider:
  • the history of the book
  • the end of books (!?)
  • the net_reading/writing_condition
  • What are some current views about the emergence and diffusion of media?

Given our chat last week, I thought you would all find this recent article interesting:

It's the end of books as you knew them: E-books out-sell hardbound for the 1st time

Summary: Get ready to bid adieu to your local bookstore -- if you're lucky enough to still have one! -- as e-books sales surpass hardcover book sales for the first time.

EBooks out sell hardbound for the first time.
EBooks out sell hardbound for the first time.
If you follow the book trade, you knew this was coming. E-books, no matter whether you read them on an Amazon Kindle, a Barnes & Noble Nook, or your iPad are selling like crazy. We may complain about their high prices and even take eBook publishers to court for their prices and hardware lock-in, but we love our e-books. In fact, we love them so much that for the first time adult eBook sales were higher than adult hardcover sales.

It wasn't even close. The Association of American Publishersreported that in the first quarter of 2012, adult eBook sales were up to $282.3 million while adult hardcover sales came to only $229.6 million. In last year's first quarter, hardcover sales accounted for $223 million in sales while eBooks logged $220.4 million.
So where are the eBook buyers coming from? The answer is trade and mass-market paperbacks. Trade paperback sales fell from $335-million to $299.8-million. That's a drop of 10.5%. Mass market paperbacks sales had it even worse. They plummeted $124.8-million to $98.9-million in the same quarter last year. That's a fall of 20.8%.
The conventional wisdom had been that e-books would eat up hardbound book sales. That's not happening. Instead, while e-books will certainly by year's end be the most popular book format, it's paperback books that are really taking a hit. Perhaps that's because when you're buying a hardcover, you're buying not just a story, but an artifact, an object with more value than just as a way to get to the story.
Be that as it may, e-books are clearly the wave of the future. As someone who loves bookstores, libraries and has a few thousand physical books of his own, this is one wave I'm not entirely happy about. After all, e-books can be deleted, locked away by Digital Rights Management (DRM), or even edited from afar.
Don't get me wrong. I love the ease of purchase and use of e-books. My Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet goes everywhere with me and I have e-book applications on every device I own. Let's not forget though, as we rush to e-books faster than a bored housewife running to buy her copy of Fifty Shades of Grey--the soft-porn novel which has accounted for over 50% of all trade paperback book sales in recent weeks—that we're also going to lose such simple pleasures as lending a friend a good book.

Was There a Reading Revolution in the New American Republic?

Professor Robert Gross explores the history and historiography of book history and reading in pre Civil War America. This lecture was originally given at the University of Toronto in the fall of 2008.


  1. Q1 & Q2

    Yes, there is a sensible negotiation by book publishers between traditional books and the e-book. The terms referenced – scroll, page, index – provide e-book readers with the structure and familiarity that they are accustom to with linear, paper books. This is a comfortable launch point for people new to the medium. Beyond digital text the potential for e-books is amazing as authors are able to enrich their writing by linking to the resources of the internet – whether its additional text, audio, video, pictures or even interactive abilities through social media. When considering whether it is relevant that text be separated from paper and reused through digital media -- one need only watch this Apple iText book launch video from January, 2012 – start viewing at 2:04 to see the potential ( Print books are heavy, expensive and outdated the moment they are printed – e-books change all that.

    In Schillingburg’s book introduction I heard echoes of Marshall McLuhan who famously said new media change us and the world. Schillingburg talks about his Script Act Theory not only from the perspective of print text reformatted electronically but also from the “triangle” of relations it creates with writers and readers, he says “electronic representations of written texts have as much capacity to change the users as they have of changing the text “(p.3-4). He attributes this to our comfort level with computers. I would also include the increasing use of touch screens from tablets to Smartphones in the acceptance and diffusion of e-Books.

    Jared Jenisch said the history of the book (and the e-book is part of this now) is the social and cultural history that makes use of the study of books, and of their making, selling, buying and reading, to study society (p. 231). He says it is more than a physical object – it is a cultural entity that impacts communication with social and economic implications. So, it will be interesting to see what society wants and where we go next because -- as the Vaughan-Nichols article reinforced – e-Books have reached a tipping point. He mentions this will bring changes. Perhaps this will be similar to what Blockbuster experienced when Netflix showed up and killed the old school video rental market. Will the Chapters of the future adapt? Will we still go to a place like that to scan e-books through computer screens, Starbucks latte in-hand to decide if we want to download a book? Or will we just stay home? Maybe we will still share books – but in a different, electronic way of passing hands. Think about the music industry. Schillingsburg really put it in perspective for me when he reinforced that we are in the infancy of a textual revolution – we are only 15 – 20 years in with digital whereas print text reigned for 500 years. Just look at the Apple iText book demo and imagine where another 10 or 15 years will take us in the history of the e-book. This becomes really pronounced when you read/view Giselle Beiguelman’s “The Book after a Book”. I personally found it rather irritating to digest, however, I appreciate it was early days in 1999 and she is exploring new territory with her design. I really liked her interview quote referring to our mobile phones and PDAs as the “icons of our time” and “making us proto-cyborgs as they support our nomadic way of life”. She said that 14 years ago – before the proliferation of Smartphones and tablets we have today.

  2. I absolutely love physical books so this week’s readings were interesting and relevant. While the popularity and commerce of e-books continues to skyrocket, a big part of me is saddened by the perpetual closing of local bookshops and the lack of physical books inside our public libraries. We have a state-of-the-art library at the college ( where there are hardly any books at all. This echos Jenisch’s discussion on the librarians and their role as information scientists. As Shillingerburg notes, “ the age of print has seen its peak and heyday.”

    In response to Q1, I agree with Teresa - there is a negotiation between paper and digital formats, and the using terms we are use to helps us make that transition comfortably. On e-readers, even the experience of “flipping a page” is there to capture that familiar motion of a traditional experience. In terms of price, space, weight, mobility, value-added features (links, embedded videos, annotation, searching passages, environmental footprint, etc.), the digital format has a lot to offer. The negotiation has nothing to do with the actual content, it is in the experience for the reader - the smell of printed pages, the feel of a book in your hand (that does not require batteries), and the fact that each book has a different experience (size, shape, colour, paper stock). This constant negotiation applies for all text/manuscripts including magazines, newspapers, textbooks, etc.

    The second question had me thinking for a while. On one hand, the term “books” is been defined as “a set of written, printed, or blank sheets bound together into a volume” (Merriam-webster) so it is authentically, a very physical experience. However, the term has evolved over time, and it’s commonly understood that when we say “we’re reading a book”, we engaging with text and content that is not necessary in a printed and bound format. I think the old world me wants to savour the traditional experience while the digital me wants to consume the content in the most efficient way possible. Like Teresa, I was drawing on McLuhan’s perspectives - the medium influences the message and the experience overall.

    Shillingerburg’s thought-provoking piece challenges us to think about how the different roles that readers, writers, editors play, and what happens when print text transcends to electronic. I think this process does “alter the conditions of textuality” and I’m interested to read more of his ponders beyond the Introduction.

  3. Sylvia, I love books too – I become emotionally attached to many of them and hence hoard to many of them. One thing that e-books will not be able to match is the nostalgia associated with the worn/torn/used and beloved pages of my children’s favorite books. I have the best ones tucked away, not just my children’s but ones special to me as well. The first book that made me sob out loud in my bedroom as a young tween was Gone With The Wind. I still have that paperback and many more, which connected with me in some manner that I can’t part with them.

    Your post reminded me of a story this last Monday in The Edmonton Journal. It was the 200th anniversary of the Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice ( The University of Alberta’s Rutherford Library, holds a first edition copy of this book in the climate-controlled Bruce Peel Special Collection. The story caught my eye because of the recent discussion we had on “aura” and what is special about the original. It is an interesting story because the U of A have no idea how they acquired it – and only 25 years ago even realized they had it. The article also mentions that one of these first editions went at a Sotheby’s auction in 2010 for a record-breaking $222,000 Cdn. There were only 1500 printed and no one knows how many exist today. As Paula Simmon’s points out so well “the true value of Pride and Prejudice is in its story, its language, its characters, and its wit – whether you summon them up via a rare first edition, a cheap mass-market paperback, or a Kobo”. She mentions that it is easy to forget how radical this book was for its subject matter and its use of language. Would it make an interesting project to see the impact of a story like this on the reader based on the “medium” – the original, the e-book with all it’s abilities of digital pictures and video, or a paperback?

    The majority of books I have read have not had the ability to link to the resources of the internet. They don’t have pictures either – pages and pages of linear type. We needed to imagine the characters, the scenes and “the pictures” in our heads. I wonder if we hand all this to children, or adults for that matter if we lose something special – the stretching of our imagination and creative muscles? I know we are saying that e-books have the ability to engage in a way that old books can't but I think we lose some things as well. What do you guys think?

    1. Teresa, I agree that there is something invaluable and intimate in the reading of a print book. As you mentioned it is a especially significant when we relate it to books that have had significant meaning to us. I could not imagine reading Dr. Seuss from a laptop or tablet to my kids. They enjoyed selecting their bedtime stories, and usually picked the ones with the pictures they liked the best. When the book was not being read to them they would often look at the pictures and study them, being taken away by their imagination. The animation of the story came through my voice, and not electronic images. It made me embody the character to the delight of my daughters. These are some of our best shared memories. As teenagers they have copies of their favorite bedtime stories nostalgically in their rooms as well. It keeps their childhood within grasp as they mature all too quickly. This would be hard to replicate if they had to replace that book with a laptop.

  4. Q3. For earlier examples of “text-plus” – I think of CD-Rom. These were a go-to resource for me in the early – mid 90’s when my children were very young. Some of my early favorites were children’s storybooks, and educational games – for example, for spelling and math. I remember one of the first I had was for the Encyclopedia Brittanica – which also enabled you to link out to the internet. Broderbund was the creator of many of my kid’s favorites – for example – Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

    The “text-plus” question made me think first of the Smartphone app/s that carry this name ( ; I do not have this app – but I understand it lets anyone text, talk and share for free or cheaply – and includes things like group texting. Based on the readings this week however, it is likely that for publishers and writers we are referring to the functionality of digital text and the ability to link elsewhere – be it the internet or other areas of text. I highlighted several lines in Robert Coover’s reading. He wrote this in 1992 and had some interesting comments that are still valid 20+ years on. He is critiquing hypertext and says “the creative imagination often becomes more preoccupied with linkage, routing and mapping than with statement or style, or with what we would call character or plot (two traditional narrative elements that are decidedly in jeopardy) (p. 708). Another insight “ . . . The structuring of the space can be so compelling and confusing as to utterly absorb and neutralize the narrator and to exhaust the reader.” I can relate to this comment myself – as I’ve mentioned before I just have to press a hyperlink if it is there – it’s too much of a teaser for me. Maybe the multitasking youth of today are able to cope with this or have certainly had to adapt to it.

  5. Question #1 was a great topic to ponder. Prior to this week I had never truly paid attention to "how" I read (historically/traditionally or contemporarily). What remains the same in print and digital reading is text (or content as Sylvia states). We have opportunities to experience information in a variety of mediums on line, however, we read text in both formats. I would agree to a degree with both of my classmates that there is some negotiation between contemporary and historical reading practices, but differences are also present. Pages within print copy are records that articulate not only the text but the experience and conditions in which the text was written (when was it written, who was it's intended audience, etc...). I see a difference in the pages within digital text as essentially pieces of virtual memory, capturing data. Because it can be disseminated indiscriminately, and have multiple applications it takes on different characteristics to that of print text. It is not as intentional. Scrolling text in an online format that allows the reader to move up and down the text, not changing the layout. Comparing it to print text and traditional reading practices, it reminded me of the peripheral reading classes we had to do in junior high school text books to increase reading capacity, and identify important information at a glance. Contemporary reading includes links, which are pathways from one text to another, and can be seen as a progression or extension of the chapters in a book. As well as browsers that we use to navigate through content, and can be compared loosely to libraries, or encyclopedias. Through the act of reading itself it seems we have to adopt new practices. Many articles I have read online indicate that we tend to "scan" more so than "read" text in it's digital form. I found a really insightful article called "Reading in a Hypertext Environment", It discusses the similarities and differences with reading print and hypertext. Shillingburg touched on some points that that helped me to identify the similarities and differences of my own reading practices - which I'm sure are identifiable to others. On page 4 he writes, "Electronic representations of written text have as much capacity to change the user as they have to change the text.". I would have to agree as I have fallen victim to enjoying reading digitally far more than through print. I suppose I am attracted to the hypermedia, non-linear fashion digital print offers the reader. Although, I appreciate what you are saying about the priceless experience of being lost in a good book Sylvia. Since I engage in reading far more electronically these days, negotiating reading practices of old to new are becoming less significant for me. I am forgetting what it feels like to get a paper cut from turning the page of a good book, and replacing it with a headache from over exposure to a glaring computer screen reading an article. The contemporary practices listed above are representative of what Shillingburg continues to say on page 4, "Computers have altered the way people interact with texts and thus have changed both textual uses and users.".

  6. In the podcast "Was There a Reading Revolution in the New American Republic" presented by Dr. Gross, he stated that, "print was the art that preserved all art". Very interesting comment to in addressing question #2. This statement is grounding in light of the varied ways that books, but really "text" can be experienced. This statement reminds me that we have to exercise caution in preserving the written word. Although we have multiple options to express text, what would happen if one day the digital text became irretrievable? With that said, I think that books do exist in multimedia. Beyond print and digital formats, we have audio books as well. The screen play is a visual extension of books, which we have adopted as a form of story telling for quite some time. I think it represents text being separated from print to be used as digital media. Beiguelman's "The Book after the Book", really took the idea of a book to whole new level. I have to say I actually enjoyed it and found myself liking the labyrinth of text opportunities it presented. It was a bit painful at first as Teresa indicated, but I eventually had to stop clicking the links, and following through the portals of abstract connections. I found it was a very unconventional expression of a book, and thought of it more as an expression of layered text or even digital art. Reiterating what Teresa said in reference to Shillingsburg and our infancy of a textual revolution, we have much uncharted territory. As we create, and generate new technology virtually or through new devices, emphasis on the preservation of print books is essential.

    1. Hi Gail, I enjoyed that podcast too. A couple of things that I found particularly interesting; the comment that during this period of time paper and postage was expensive so people scribbled messages in the margins of newspapers and sent them in the mail – announcing things like birth and death, and of course courtship matters – and that this was a challenge for postmasters. It’s kind of like sending a postcard. Also, the fact that the Government subsidized the newspapers was interesting – especially given how that industry is suffering and changing today due to the changing reading habits, and preferences of it’s target market. I liked to visualize the Boston Exchange Coffee House with the oral exchanging of news and views in addition to newspapers. It was interesting to hear Professor Gross speak to how the change in reading and books was gradual – and that no single mode of reading or writing prevailed. He commented that mixed media, oral performances, signs and symbols, and print of all sorts were used. It really reinforced for me the conceptual similarities we have today in terms of adapting to new forms of media.

      I loved the complaint that there were too many books in the world – which he speculated came from the catalogers. It would be interesting to see the comparison between how many new titles today are released (in all their forms) versus the 2,185 of that time. Especially with the ability to see easily publish now. With PressBooks for example you can publish electronically for free -- new cool, Christmas ideas for your loved ones. :-)

  7. I'm not entirely sure how to respond to the idea of text-plus. My internet searches on this topic yielded nothing but countless hits of the texting service by the same name. I see it as hypertext or hypermedia for writers and publishers of today.