The Electronic Book – Commentary 2

Introduction

The following commentary will focus on Chapter 5: The Electronic Book of Jay David Bolter’s book Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. In this chapter, Bolter (2001) examines how the book has been refashioned through digital technology. Comparatively, as Bolter asserts “the development of the codex corresponded to a set of new possibilities for writers and readers” (p. 78) we find that the development of electronic text is no different.

Electronic Book (or eBook)

An electronic book or eBook can be defined as “the digital representation of the printed material (print book), the medium can vary from a (laptop) computer to digital eBook reader, PDA, mobile phone or even (through a desktop printer) traditional paper…. and available in PDF or HTML format, but also plain text or XML formats” (van der Velde & Ernst, 2009).  Bolter (2001) notes that the electronic text pays “homage to the printed codex and other paper-based materials, while at the same time trying to supersede them” (p. 79) he also asserts that in order for remediation to occur, “it must promise something more than the form it remediates” (p. 80). Bolter then begins a short discussion of the ways in which eBooks does this; however, the list can be expanded to include additional points. Furthermore, the disadvantages of eBooks also warrant discussion and this is a point that is noticeably absent in Bolter’s writing.  

Advantages and Disadvantages of eBooks

Bolter’s discussion on the advantages of eBooks is brief. Bolter (2001) highlights the ability to turn text into hypertext, thereby allowing the reader to search for occurrences of words and phrases in the text and making text more readily manipulated. The value of this could have been further elaborated on to discuss how the reader is provided with the ability to exercise control and choose his/her path through a hypertext world. This affords a very different reading experience than the traditional printed book.  Kress (2005) notes that printed books contain “chapters that are numbered, and the assumption is that there is an apparent building from chapter to chapter: They are not to be read out of order….we start at the top left of the corner, move across the page…order is firmly coded” (p. 7). Furthermore, each hypertext is a path allowing for further exploration in contrast to the traditional printed page, which has one traditional entry point (Kress, 2005). However, Bolter does not address how the reader is to make the leap and successful transition from reading in print which is generally marked by its linear and hierarchical structure to that of hypertext or electronic text which offers multiple paths and is associative (p. 42).  The pedagogical implication of this shift in reading structure, navigation and organization requires that both educators and students are prepared for such changes and requires investigation.

Another advantage of the eBook discussed by Bolter (2001) is that an eBook is designed to be reloaded and it is connected to a growing world of online material. The ability to store a large number of documents on a single device offers convenience with little concern or thought given to physical storage space in comparison to printed books.  Aside from those noted by Bolter, further advantages of eBooks warrant mention. The dynamic nature of the eBook includes more than just the hypertext noted above, it also includes the ability to manipulate font size, utilize backlighting, bookmark pages and highlight passages. Where the printed page is static, the digital or electronic page is dynamic, it responds to the readers’ touch. While this may not be enough to win over the traditional book enthusiasts who lament the loss of the aesthetic feel and tactile appeal of the conventional book, it offers another perspective of how “tactile” needs can be met. Other advantages that could have been addressed by Bolter include the ease with which digital text can be updated to ensure the most recent edition is read. 

As noted above, the disadvantages of the eBook are lacking in Bolter’s discussion of electronic books. The issue of eye strain and glare from reading on an electronic device was not mentioned, nor was the issue of battery life discussed. Similarly, the dependency on equipment such as hardware and software to read, its potential for failure and to become outdated are important factors for consideration when looking at how eBooks remediate print. However, with rapid advances in technology, such issues may become minimal or non-existent; although the absence of any discussion by Bolter on the disadvantages leaves the reader feeling only one side of the story has been told. Clearly, as Postman (1992) noted, technology is not neutral, it brings both benefits and burdens. Understanding both of these when it comes to eBooks is critical to understanding its emergence, acceptance and continued future.

Conclusion

Ebooks have brought with it new possibilities for writers and readers and has transformed the landscape. However, as the printed book and eBook vie for our attention as readers it is not a matter of which will win out and supplant the other, but rather a matter of them enhancing the options available to readers. They can coexist together, complementing each other and providing the user with choice. The power of the printed book cannot be easily dismissed; the mere fact that the eBook tries to “imitate the physical appearance of the codex” (Bolter, 2001, p.80) speaks to its influence and power. The power of a book, whether print or electronic is unquestionable and as Ong (1982) notes “more than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness” (p. 77); thus leaving one to ponder the impact of the eBook, which still remains to be seen. 

References

Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kress, Gunther. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge and learning. Computers and Composition. 22(1), pp. 5-22.

Ong, W. (2002). Orality and literacy. New York: Routledge.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books. Retrieved on September 11, 2010 from https://www.vista.ubc.ca/webct/RelativeResourceManager/Template/Imported_Resources/etec540demo_det_course_20070517151759/pdfs/postman-thamus.pdf

van der Velde, W. and Ernst, Olaf. (2009). The future of eBooks? Will print disappear? An end-user perspective. Library Hi Tech. 27(4), pp.570-583.  Retrieved on November 10, 2010 from http://biecoll.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/volltexte/2010/…/ernst_final_rd.pdf

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