Electronic Books?

Electronic Books?

2003-07-15

Stuart Moulthrop re-opens the debate on the “electronic book” and its continued marginalization vis-a vis print.

Dear Editors:

Praise to Dave Ciccoricco for a thoughtful, comprehensive, and notably open-minded essay on the contours of “contour” and other vicissitudes of Joyce-Bolter-Bernstein hypertext. I welcome an account that gives both eros and engineering their due; and for all the iconography of cairns and monuments, I’m glad to read something that isn’t a premature death notice.

I do take friendly objection to one point the author makes in closing, citing my opposition to the concept of “electronic books.” Mr. Ciccoricco writes:

“Clearly, ‘electronic book’ is an oxymoron with which the eponymous review journal is quite comfortable - not despite, but because of the new possibilities such combination allows. To see it otherwise is to ignore the extent to which the ‘old’ rhetorics have informed what follows.”

We will differ on this point, I hope amicably. I parse the name “Electronic Book Review” as “Book Review, Electronic.” Mr. Ciccoricco seems to think it means “Review of Electronic Books.” As the editor, of course, he has the casting vote. But what exactly is an “electronic book?” Since most printed books emerge from word processing and digital page production, don’t they all deserve the name? And by the same token don’t we drive electronic cars, eat electronic food, and occasionally, when eros and engineering align, enjoy electronic sex?

To echo an astute question, what would this contour exclude?

Being perhaps more conservative than Mr. Ciccoricco, I prefer to let books be books and cybertexts be whatever they turn out to be. Yet this scruple does not exclude conjunction. A hypertextual review of books is a fine thing indeed, or so EBR has proved. Likewise consider www.amazon.com, arguably one of the most valuable uses of node-link technology - a hypertext whose nodes are books. The new does not erase the old.

Can we depend upon the converse, however? Mr. Ciccoricco says “[t]he conventional wisdom of print has never threatened to occlude the literary creativity of a digital age…” True, the Print Cabal has not yet slapped me with a restraining order. But how was it that a certain celebrated electronic magazine declined to publish Michael Joyce’s Twelve Blue for fear of disorienting its readers? What became of the website supporting the hypertexts excerpted in the Norton Anthology of Postmodernist Fiction? Why does no corporate publisher offer a line of hypertexts? To say nothing of certain book critics who write for less enlightened publications than EBR. Here I’m afraid I must differ on the facts. Electronic texts have indeed been marginalized, excluded, and misrepresented by leading institutions of print culture.

Indeed, in what media theorist Daniel Downes calls the “New Media Order” we are seeing a steady reassertion of old-media models (e.g., in digital music distribution) where once were stronger openings for change. As Bob Roberts always says, times are changing back. Knowing that “conventional wisdom” does indeed impede new ideas, I think it’s especially important to maintain our differences. I’ll continue to like my books printed, thanks, and to distinguish strongly between print and other media.

This is not to suggest, however, that book people and computer people can’t get along. Indeed, Mr. Ciccoricco’s wise and generous essay confirms the possibility. With my grumbling, also my thanks.

Stuart Moulthrop
Baltimore