The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Electronic books: Not yet the remediation of print

There is no question but that electronic structures are changing our views about the way knowledge is ordered and utilized, however those changes are more nuanced than many digital enthusiasts, to borrow Bolter’s (2001) term, have allowed.  Yet as more electronic books have become available on more platforms (laptops, cell phones, PDAs and dedicated e-book readers), there has been no mass exodus from print.  Writing about the excessive optimism that accompanied the introduction of e-books, Hawkins (2002) notes simply that: “Most people don’t like to read from a screen, and it will be extremely difficult to change that perception” (p. 44).  We are clearly in a transitional stage in the evolution of the e-book, and even its relation to the printed codex that preceded it is up for debate.  Anderson-Inman and Horney (1997) argue that in order to be considered an e-book “the software must adopt the metaphor of a book in some significant way” (p. 486), including such things as the use of bookmarks, tables of contents, references to screens as ‘pages’ and functionality that allows the addition of ‘margin notes.’  Writing just four years later, Bolter argues “…the metaphor of the book is now moribund” (Bolter, 2001, p. 98).  He suggests that the affordances of the Internet allow us to move beyond the book to a new metaphor shaped by digital technologies.  Teacher-librarians, charged with instructing students in how to access information and literature in the most efficient and enjoyable ways possible, have embraced the use of e-books in schools.  What has become apparent is that e-book technologies, as Bolter (2001) suggests, have had an additive effect rather than entirely remediating print.  The focused linearity of print is a quality still valued by many readers, particularly for fiction, while the internal and external linkages afforded by hypertext are useful when the goal is information gathering.  Bolter (2001) argues that in “…late age of print … the circle and the line are equally at home” (p. 88), but limitations of existing e-book technologies still prove an obstacle.
Latest Sony e-book reader

Sony Reader Daily Edition

The cost of digital alternatives has been a factor in their adoption.  E-books read using a home computer are cost effective since few people in developed countries do not already own a PC capable of running the required software.  However, the initial cost of purchasing a dedicated e-book reader, particularly for fiction, is still prohibitive.  There are also lingering issues of  portability, readability and battery life, though these are certain to be addressed over time.  For non-fiction materials, particularly encyclopedias and reference works, however, portability works to the advantage of e-books and uptake has been faster and more enthusiastic.  High school students are content to use electronic versions of reference works that are, in print form, typically larger, heavier, and available for shorter loan periods than other types of materials.  And, in addition to 24/7 availability online, electronic reference books offer the advantages inherent in most digitized material: “Specifically, electronic documents are usually searchable, modifiable, and ‘enhanceable.’ ” (Anderson-Inman & Horney, 1997, p. 487).  At the post-secondary level, where students purchase their books, electronic texts are popular with a majority of students for many of the same reasons (Hawkins, 2002, p. 45).  “As with any remediation, however, the eBook must promise something more than the form it remediates: it must offer what can be construed as a more immediate, complete, or authentic experience for the reader” (Bolter, 2001, p. 80).  Again, to date, this is most true for reference works and most notable for encyclopedias.

World Book online student

World Book online Student

Bolter devotes some time to discussion of CD-ROM and DVD encyclopedias, but at this writing, they have been almost entirely eclipsed by their online versions.  Bolter, published in 2001, could not have foreseen the phenomenal success of Wikipedia, the wiki-based encyclopedia edited by tens of thousands of Internet volunteers from around the globe, which started the year his book was printed.  DVD-based encyclopedias were, in retrospect, a stepping-stone from print to online versions.  They introduced search capability, hyperlinks and multimedia: “…excellent examples of the ways in which hypertext and hypermedia remediate print” (Bolter, 2001, 88).  They are, however, limited by network restrictions (speed, bandwidth, user limits), and they suffer from the same limitation as their print counterparts:  DVD encyclopedias are usually updated once a year.  What they did allow was time for the technology of the Internet to mature, for networks and ISPs to become more stable and reliable, and for high-speed connections to become commonplace in developed nations.  The major traditional commercial encyclopedias including Britannica ( Nov. 12, 2009) and World Book ( Nov. 12, 2009), still offer print and DVD editions, but they also offer subscription-based online versions that are continually updated with new hyperlinks, new media, and new articles.  Some, such as Britannica and World Book, also incorporate Web 2.0 interactive elements including the Britannica blogs and YouTube-like video.  Britannica features a section called Advocacy for Animals.  Both encyclopedias incorporate popular Web 2.0 design elements making their sites look more like interactive websites than search engines.  Bolter did accurately foresee that: “These online editions of the great book add to their claim of immediacy by connecting their user to cyberspace, which is itself already construed as a vast encyclopedia” (Bolter, 2001, p. 89).  Perhaps more interesting still are websites that not only encourage interactivity with readers, but also depend upon it.

Fanfiction.Net ( Nov. 11, 2009) employs attributes of Web 2.0 popular with teenage readers.  Fanfiction, as the name suggests, is a site that allows users to write chapters and scenes based on their favourite works (novels, plays, movies and television shows), and publish them to thousands of readers.  Readers can browse these user creations by category and read them online as long as they have a computer with an Internet connection or access to one in a school or public library.  The fan compositions reflect the interests and preoccupations of the time, and reach a wide audience through Internet publication facilitated by categorization, searchability and interactivity (ratings and reviews).  Forums and communities allow readers and writers to discuss their works, the shows and books on which they are based and a wide range of related topics.  English, literature and creative writing teachers would do well to co-opt the enthusiasm for this type of interaction with popular culture to encourage students to write for a much wider audience than that available in the classroom or the school.  Interestingly, while Fanfiction incorporates many Web 2.0 affordances, it is also still linked strongly to the metaphor of the codex.  Hawkins (2002) sums up the current situation well: “E-books will survive, but not in the consumer market—at least not until reading devices become much cheaper and much better in quality ….  The e-book revolution has therefore become more of an evolution.” (p.48).


Anderson-Inman, L. & Horney, M. (1997). Electronic books for secondary students.  Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 40 (6), 486-491.

Bolter, J.D. (2001). Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Hawkins, D. T. (2002). Electronic Books: Reports of their death have been exaggerated. Online, 26(4), 42.


1 Drew Ryan { 11.17.09 at 5:14 pm }

Philip, as I read your commentary two things in particular stood out for me. One, you’re quite right, as is Hawkins, that reading from a screen is less than ideal. My wife and I were just having this conversation last night regarding report cards and time spent on the computer equals the body breaking down.
I had to mention that I was doing double duty due to my MET commitments; needless to say she was not very sympathetic:)
My other comment is in relation to the remediation of print and your point on Fanfiction. I definitely agree that if educators don’t step-up and use new technologies available to them they are likely to loose a generation of students who are use to receiving and interacting with information in a more holistic immediate manner.


2 Clare Roche { 11.29.09 at 8:30 am }

I have never seen an E-book reader,but if it is similar to a computer screen I won’t be changing over soon. I am trying to save trees, but reading online instead of printing is hard work.

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