Books and ebooks, oh my, oh my. Lots and lots of talk on this one.
I’m still in the camp that, just like film and TV didn’t destroy plays but rather resulted in new story experiences, so, too, will ebooks create a new type of storytelling and — like plays — “traditional books,” even if read on an ereader, will remain.
Grossman emphasises the unique aspect of the “codex”, that is, the book: “The codex also came with a fringe benefit: It created a very different reading experience. With a codex, for the first time, you could jump to any point in a text instantly, nonlinearly. You could flip back and forth between two pages and even study them both at once. You could cross-check passages and compare them and bookmark them. You could skim if you were bored, and jump back to reread your favorite parts. It was the paper equivalent of random-access memory, and it must have been almost supernaturally empowering.” Please, go read the full thing.
What made me sit up and go “oh” was that up to this point, I was seeing books as a linear narrative experience and it wasn’t until I read this did I see, no, it’s nonlinear. Stories have always existed, but if I were listening to a bard tell a story I couldn’t say, “oh, repeat that part just for me.” Even now, I’ve been known to skip to the end of a book and read it before I finish; I’m controlling the story experience and it’s nonlinear and it still works.
Grossman next looks at the new, revolutionary ebook and ereading experience, noting that this nonlinear ability to read just isn’t the same. True that; I recently tried to skip ahead in an ebook to read the end and got very annoyed that I could not easily do it. Grossman says, “Trying to jump from place to place in a long document like a novel is painfully awkward on an e-reader, like trying to play the piano with numb fingers. You either creep through the book incrementally, page by page, or leap wildly from point to point and search term to search term.” Important to note — to do the searching, one has to know the search term.
The conclusion to this is stunning and I’m still sitting back, thinking about it: “Indeed, the codex isn’t just another format, it’s the one for which the novel is optimized.”
So, do those who think the codex is this year’s horse and carriage agreeing with that and seeing the novel as something quaint that will disappear? Obviously, I don’t — to go back to my earlier comparison, of the impact of film on visual storytelling, we still have plays. And movies. And TV. And the Internet is adding its own twists and turns and interpretations to stories.
Grossman says, “And until I hear God personally say to me, “Boot up and read,” I won’t be giving [the codex] up.” To which I say, Team Grossman and Team Codex!
This is the type of discussion I long to hear when people talk about ebooks and ereading — not about the shiny technology or storage (well, OK, yes, I do find that interesting, also), but about what this means to narrative, to books, to readers.