eBook Incunabula

At the Dublin Book Festival this weekend, the debate over ebooks vs books raised some questions about how closely the ebook needs to remain tied to the printed book. A major point of discussion in my Book History class has been incunabula – that is, books printed within the first 50 years after the invention of the printing press (circa 1450). I think we are kind of in the era of digital incunabula right now. And just like the incunabula of the 15th century mimicked the manuscripts of an earlier era, the ebooks of today are mimicking the printed book. This mimickry is not always necessary, and, as we saw in the case of incunabula, many of the old formatting traditions fall by the wayside.

I think it’s important to pause here and distinguish between text and format. All books contain text, whether is is hand-copied by scribes, printed by Gutenberg, impressed in Braille, recorded on an audiobook, or uploaded to an ereading device. What is changing is the way those lines of text are treated and presented: sheets of vellum gave way to bound paper which gave way to ereaders. The earliest text was engraved in stone, then inscribed on papyrus scrolls, then written on wooden tablets. The classic codex – that is, the bound book with pages that we turn as we read – very much belongs to the physical world. I think what is so exciting about this ebook revolution is that ebooks can become anything, and may not always resemble the books that sit on our shelves.

The first and most obvious example of ebooks holding on to traditions of the printed book is the concept of pages. My Kindle (a very early model) features buttons that say PREV[IOUS] PAGE and NEXT PAGE, but why? There are no page numbers on a Kindle book, so that word “page” doesn’t really make sense in this context. Yes, it is how I have always experienced a book, and no doubt this early Kindle (or ebook incunabulum) needs to be rooted in the familiar so readers can easily adopt the ebook format, but if a Kindle book is demarcated by percentages and locations, the concept of the page is a bit out of place. Even the earliest codices didn’t have page numbers, perhaps because people were still adjusting to the very concept of pages. Turning a page is something we do in the physical world with a print book – ereaders of the future may drop this feature once we move out of this ebook incunabula era and into a more fluid ereading experience.

Another concept that is definitely going to change is the book cover. I have never even looked at the cover of most of my ebooks, and I have trouble recognizing a book in the shop if I have only read it on my Kindle. I don’t browse for Kindle books in the Kindle store – I just buy titles I already know I want to read – so the concept of judging an ebook by it’s cover is completely lost on me. Half of the public domain books in the ibookstore are simply book icons with the title written in some boring font – no photo, no design. One of the speakers at the Dublin Book Festival, the CEO of StoryToys, actually said his app icon was his book cover. There is a overlap here between apps and ebooks/ibooks, but the fact that we have to make a distinction means that the tiny little square on your smart phone functions more like a book cover than the generic Moby Dick that is sitting on my iBookshelf.

Finally, my own personal Kindle pet peeve, which is definitely going to have to change (if it hasn’t already been updated on the fancier Kindles or other ereaders): bookmarks. This is my least favorite feature on the Kindle and, unfortunately, the one I have to use most often. Adding a bookmark requires two clicks and the presence of an obstructive screen on top of the text. Recovering a location I have bookmarked requires another two clicks and an entirely new screen, and clearing those bookmarks when I’m done requires three clicks and a reset of the bookmark menu to see the next bookmark. It definitely detracts from the reading experience. This is all a matter of how the reader uses bookmarks, and clearly I am not compatible with my Kindle 2.5.2. I much prefer my printed book technique, in which I use a post-it to mark the exact line of text I need, or, at the very least, rip up the book receipt and shove little shreds of paper way up close to the spine and hope the physical appearance of the text will jog my memory. Either way, the real-world bookmarks are easy to see, easy to navigate, and easy to remove when I am done with the book. If the newer Kindles and other ereaders have a one-click add/remove bookmark function or some sort of touch-and-highlight feature, then hurrah – ebooks are evolving.

I am not even going to touch on hyperlinking text or ebook interactivity because 1) that is certainly not my area of expertise and 2) it gets into the question of “Is it really a book if it makes sound / plays video / offers a gaming experience?” Those are debates better left for another day. I also don’t want to hypothesize too much by way of digital innovation or improvement, because if I knew the way ebooks were going to develop, I would make some investments right now and be a very rich woman in a few years. The whole point is that people more talented and innovative than me are going to make some very cool advances in ebook technology in the next few years, and they are going to astonish us all. It is a very exciting time to be learning about the publishing business.

We are still in the early years of the Information Age, and sometimes I think we forget how lucky we are to be living through this. The parallel between the print revolution and the digital revolution is just a tiny part of this significant time in history, but it’s enough to keep my imagination occupied for years to come.

One thought on “eBook Incunabula

  1. Pingback: Booky Wooks | The Galway Train

Comments are closed.