March 25, 2019 | 44° F

Electronic books turn new page in literature

As an English major, I have a near unshakeable reverence for literary tradition, almost to the point of shameless classicism. It makes sense then, that the advent of the e-book struck fear into my heart. Taking the digitization of music as a reference point, I was sure that the Kindle meant the beginning of the end for ink and paper books.

So I did what any terrified lit-nerd would do: I decided that e-readers would inevitably lead to some undefined but terrible catastrophe for all of literature and put all of my energy into convincing everyone around me that this was the case. When my mother asked for a Nook for Christmas, I instead gave her a half-hour lecture on why print books are superior. When a friend of mine tried to show me his brand new e-reader, I refused to even look at it, much less touch the accursed thing. Every time I walked into a Barnes & Noble, I had to resist the urge to tear down every Nook display in a fit of violent rage.

In hindsight, I find every single one of these anecdotes embarrassing, but at the time, I was convinced that the print book was clearly superior to its electronic counterpart. I could take the time to rattle off the lengthy list of transgressions I felt that e-books committed against print books, but most of them are admittedly absurd. Instead, I'd rather offer the only complaint I had against the e-book that doesn't make me seem like a complete lunatic. See, reading a printed book is a highly physical experience. In order to progress through it, you have to manually move its pages. The act of reading is not just an intellectual act: It's a bodily experience as well. The e-book removes this physical connection between the body and the book. Rather than flipping through actual pages, the reader of an e-book presses a button to continue. For me, this meant experiencing books on a purely conceptual level, without the added weight of physicality. This was something I couldn't bring myself to do.  

It wasn't until recently that I was forced to reevaluate my stance on the e-book. While researching the negative effects of e-book sales on brick and mortar bookstores, I came across an essay by the science fiction author Charlie Stross. In the essay, "CMAP #5: Why Books are the Length they Are," Stross lends his support to the e-book, stating that the success of the e-book may lead to a revival of non-novel formats, like novellas and serials, which have been floundering for some time.

With this one simple statement, Stross brought me over to the dark side and showed me the brilliant light I'd been missing there all along. If the e-book can revive dead formats, it can also create new ones. We are now in a position wherein we can drastically redefine what counts as a book. As Stross says in his essay, the processes and costs of printing and binding usually dictate the lengths of books, and we have come to define books according to the very narrow specifications of publishing companies. But the e-book frees books from these constraints, giving writers more room to experiment and making it easier for readers to engage with these experiments.

So, while print books and the stores that sell them may be suffering thanks to e-readers, the state of literature is actually in a position to flourish because of them. And, no matter how entrenched I am in literary tradition, the mere promise of possible progress has me positively ecstatic.

Matthew Kosinski is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in English with a minor in philosophy.

Matthew Kosins

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