Literary historian and new if:book contributor, Kylie Mirmohamadi explores a recent ebook offering from a major Australian newspaper and discovers a place where past and future collide…

In a post on the Meanland blog earlier this year, Simon Groth reflected on the deceptively simple but really very complex issue of what constitutes a book. Changing patterns of publishing and reading tend to provoke questions that go to the heart of literary experience and practice – what are the relationships between content and form, text and print, the page and the screen? The corollary to the question ‘what is a book?’, is the related, and equally fraught, ‘what is an ebook?’

The Australian newspaper inadvertently explored these issues when it launched a special promotion in October 2012 of ‘The Australian Selection’ of ebooks [The Australian, 13-14 October 2012]. Over the twelve days of the exercise, titles from Harper Collins Australia and Collins booksellers were available for download from the Kobo website via a keyword from the day’s newspaper. While ostensibly promoting the form to readers (‘the e-book, like the electronic newspaper, is available instantly, affordably and democratically’), Nick Cater’s introductory column on electronic reading  revealed some thorny questions about the nature of the ebook, and its place in the present, past and future of thebook.

The messiness of our current moment of literary transition is signalled by some of the competing qualities and meanings that are ascribed to ebooks in this column. The ebook, by this account, is historical – part of the process of the democratisation of literacy which began with the printing press in the fifteenth century – but also post-historical in the possibility it holds out for freedom from the tyranny of the industrial age and its modes of production and distribution. It functions and behaves in similar ways to the bound book – we add it to a ‘virtual library’, for example – but it is also different. Its format and delivery are significant elements of its appeal, allowing ‘more people to consume books in more places than ever’, and yet it is also immaterial, as ‘power’ resides in words, not binding. The sensual pleasures traditionally associated with the materiality of the book are celebrated in the evocation of the ‘tactile pleasure’, smell, and collective appearance of the codex form, but also erased: ‘[N]o matter [my emphasis] whether they [good books] come in hard covers, soft covers or in adjustable-sized text on a light electronic screen …’.

Not surprisingly for a literary historian, what struck me about the Australian’s introduction was its reference to and uses of the past. In much of the commentary around electronic books and reading, the impulse seems to be to hail ereading as a new development and, at the same time, to look to traditional models and practices to represent it. As is often noted, think of the bookshelves and bookmarks in your e reading apps. Of course, electronic reading, like all literary activity, is both new and old. This is no more a contradiction than the use of new ‘futuristic’ technology as a platform for the delivery of sometimes nostalgic content (the Australian’s selection included, for example, John Howard’s autobiography).

We can see the double vision of this response at work in Cater’s casting of electronic text as not a departure from but an extension of print culture. ‘True bilbliophiles’ he asserts, ‘will embrace the arrival of the e-book as an adjunct to the bound volume.’ Print culture, it seems, is never far from the mind of the electronic reader. Those who took up The Australian’s offer encountered a playful reference to this proximity at the Kobo app. Even though it promises, or commands, that in Koboland readers ‘read freely’, the new literary place is bound to the formats and processes of more traditional publishing. While waiting for the electronic text to load in Kobo the consumer is told in scrolling text (clearly intended to make ironic comment on the shortcomings of print publishing) that time is being used ‘hand sewing leather binding’, ‘hammering out type’, ‘writing introduction’, and ‘arguing with the editor’.

The suggestion across the reviews of the individual titles offered via The Australian’s promotion is that an ebook is something very much like a bound book. While the introductory column ‘sells’ the electronic format little, if any, reference is made to it in the reviews of the individual titles. While a conventional book review may comment on the format of its subject – the cover, page layout, typescript, or margins, for example – the physical experience of ereading is more often elided. While the subject of content is confidently broached across these reviews, the assembled experts seem reluctant to comment on the electronic form.

So, what is an ebook? Must it be defined solely in relation to a print book? What are its demands on a reader? Is ereading just like print reading? Must the screen experience of reading be the literary elephant in the room?



Further reading

Leah Price, How to do things with books in Victorian Britain, Princeton University Press, 2012.


Image: Teenage boy reading a book in the garden, 1910-1920; Creator: Unidentified; Location: Queensland, Australia; View this image at the State Library of Queensland: