Typically, new technologies describe an emotional arc from excitement, through to euphoria, and often on to anxiety and decline. As of now, ebooks have just left euphoria and are caught halfway between anxiety and decline and if nothing changes they may soon go the way of Betamax, Bebo and the Sinclair C5. Already, we hear the grinding of gears, the anguished cries as the drivers panic about the transmission of a killer app in identity crisis.
Proponents plead that we must get beyond replication and stop pouring the same old content into digital containers. Like Guinness, ebooks must, in future, be made of more. What then is the “more” they have in mind? Inert text perched on a plastic wafer was always a waste of digital’s capabilities, so the temptation will be to reproduce the linking and clicking that governs our web-reading habits.
In nonfiction, the pluses are obvious, but now the notion of extending these “advances” into fiction is gaining currency. But won’t any such movement turn novels into something else? Simple and perfect, the novel involves the close engagement of two minds with no constraints and no interference. As the novelist Will Self said recently, “The hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations.” And difficulty, he might have added, can be solved only by thinking, not linking, which would trivialise the intellectual transaction of the novel.
What irks the “digerati” is the failure of ebooks to dent the affection heavy book-buyers retain for the thing-ness of the original Gutenbergian model. Bibliophiles abhor the impermanence of ebooks because downloads confer no sense of ownership or collectability. Ebooks rarely command review space because choosing what to review is a literary editor’s nightmare. And, because anyone can publish now, perhaps the clearest beneficiaries are wannabe writers rather than readers.
Readers are being asked to swallow the line that replica ebooks were a false start but hey, wait till you see the spiffy second wave. The ebook is a format in search of a function, and so far nobody has quite got the hang of what that is.