“The endless malleability of digital writing,” writes Nicholas Carr in the Wall Street Journal, “promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing.”
“When Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type a half-millennium ago, he also gave us immovable text. Before Gutenberg, books were handwritten by scribes, and no two copies were exactly the same. Scribes weren’t machines; they made mistakes. With the arrival of the letterpress, thousands of identical copies could enter the marketplace simultaneously. The publication of a book, once a nebulous process, became an event.
“A new set of literary workers coalesced in publishing houses, collaborating with writers to perfect texts before they went on press. The verb ‘to finalize’ became common in literary circles, expressing the permanence of printed words. Different editions still had textual variations, introduced either intentionally as revisions or inadvertently through sloppy editing or typesetting, but books still came to be viewed, by writer and reader alike, as immutable objects. They were written for posterity.”
Perhaps Carr somewhat overstates the contrast between the pre- and post-Gutenberg worlds. As anyone who has studied the literature of any pre-print culture will know, establishing a “correct” text is often what one spends half one’s time on. So much so that in a modern edition of a medieval text, the poem or narrative itself can often be dwarfed by the scholarly apparatus that explains and contextualises it and justifies the decisions that led to the text that has been reconstructed.
But that is not to say that the print era necessarily stabilised texts or always privileged the author and his intentions. In the early period of print culture the writer was often quite at a loss (literally) as to how to share in the profits of his works. If he had entered into an agreement with a bookseller (early publishers were often booksellers), either by selling the work outright or by taking a share of the receipts from its sale, well this might be fine – as long as the bookseller was honest and the book was no more than a modest success. If it became a sensation, then the likelihood was that other publishers in other cities and countries would also publish it, without the author getting a penny. Worse still, if a writer’s name became famous, it might be stuck onto other works that he had not written to make them more saleable, again with no profit to himself but with the additional possibility of damage to his reputation. Finally, editor/publishers outside the writer’s limited reach might decide that his work was good stuff and potentially marketable ‑ but only up to a point. Dickens’s Bleak House, which nudges a thousand pages in a modern paperback edition, was cut back to two hundred and sixteen pages by the Italian publisher Sonzogno in the 1880s. This is of course an outrage, though generations of Eng Lit students forced to down every last drop of the saccharine self-abnegation of Esther Summerson’s narrative might understand the thinking behind it.
“Once digitized,” Carr writes, “a page of words loses its fixity. It can change every time it’s refreshed on a screen. A book page turns into something like a Web page, able to be revised endlessly after its initial uploading. There’s no technological constraint on perpetual editing, and the cost of altering digital text is basically zero. As electronic books push paper ones aside, movable type seems fated to be replaced by movable text.”
Though this is from certain perspectives a bonus [the updating of reference works, for example], Carr writes, “as is often the case with digitization, the boon carries a bane. The ability to alter the contents of a book will be easy to abuse. School boards may come to exert even greater influence over what students read. They’ll be able to edit textbooks that don’t fit with local biases. Authoritarian governments will be able to tweak books to suit their political interests. And the edits can ripple backward. Because e-readers connect to the Internet, the works they contain can be revised remotely, just as software programs are updated today. Movable text makes a lousy preservative.
“Such abuses can be prevented through laws and software protocols. What may be more insidious is the pressure to fiddle with books for commercial reasons. Because e-readers gather enormously detailed information on the way people read, publishers may soon be awash in market research. They’ll know how quickly readers progress through different chapters, when they skip pages, and when they abandon a book [Miss Summerson will scarcely survive] …
“ … Not long before he died, John Updike spoke eloquently of a book’s ‘edges,’ the boundaries that give shape and integrity to a literary work and that for centuries have found their outward expression in the indelibility of printed pages. It’s those edges that give a book its solidity, allowing it to stand up to the vagaries of fashion and the erosions of time. And it’s those edges that seem fated to blur as the words of books go from being stamped permanently on sheets of paper to being rendered temporarily on flickering screens.”
Nicholas Carr is the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. He blogs at www.roughtype.com