Books and eBooks: Fixity and Fluidity

In terms of print vs. digital, in what ways do we change what we think of as a “book”?

Nicholas Carr (author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains) has some rather interesting thoughts on the fixity of the book as a permanent, physical object: “Words in stone and on the wind.” In particular, Carr suggests four categories of what he means by the fixity of print —

(1) Integrity of the page. Meaning, our assurance that the words fixed on a page are the same today as they will be tomorrow, or any time in the future.

“The integrity of the page has been so intrinsic to the technology of the book (and the book’s predecessors) that most of us assume it to be intrinsic to the very idea of a book. But, as we’re now discovering, it’s not … Because an ebook’s words are composed of software and a page needs to be refreshed each time it’s viewed, the contents of a page can change from one viewing to the next.”

(2) Integrity of the edition. How do we know that one edition of a book is like or unlike another edition of that same book? There’s great historical interest in this point, because book production was anything but standardized until the 19th century. With the move from printing press to digital publication, that distinction is a little blurred:

“Ebooks have no print runs, and the very idea of an “edition” gets fuzzy with an ebook. A publisher, or a self-published writer, is free to change the source file of a ebook at pretty much any time, and there’s no requirement that readers be alerted to the change.”

(3) Permanence of the object. Remember when we still used nothing but floppy disks?

“Because an ebook is not susceptible to the kind of physical decay that can afflict a paper book, it theoretically can last longer. But in this case there is a vast gulf between theory and reality … As software, ebooks will likely suffer from this same impermanence, a problem magnified by the wide range of proprietary and open formats in which ebooks are sold today. A printed book is a printed book is a printed book. An ebook is not an ebook is not an ebook.”

(4) Sense of completeness. From the perspective of writers and publishers, this is well worth thinking about more. Does the transition to digital mean a subsequent change in our understanding in what publishing a work means to us? Print publishing is something that occurs as a certain, fixed point in time. One print run, with a finite number of books produced, and then future prints ones if things go well. But what then about digital publishing: is there still one fixed point in time in which we think of ebooks being published? And, does it still matter?

“As the printing and publishing trades matured over the last half millennium, the publication of a book went from being a vague, ongoing process to an event — a date on a publishing calendar — and, in turn, the sense of a book as a final, finished creation strengthened, particularly in the mind of an author but also in the minds of editors, proofreaders, and book designers …

Because it lacks the necessity and the fixity of a print run, e-publishing once again can become an ongoing process rather than an event, which is likely to change the perceptions of writers and their collaborators. And when you change your perception of what you’re creating, you will also change how you create it. I think it’s fair to say that these kinds of shifts are subtle and play out over a long time, but in some ways the erosion of the sense of a written work’s completeness and self-containment may ultimately change literature as much as the underlying technological changes.”

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Kevin Kelly (author of What Technology Wants) has a fine companion piece for these above thoughts — “Fixity vs. Fluidity — with his own four categories on the fluidity of ebooks. There’s no right or wrong in this sort of discussion (unless you’re Jonathan Franzen, but, more on that later), only different ways of approaching the problem —

(1) Fluidity of the page — Can flow to fit any space, any where, any time.

(2) Fluidity of the edition — Can be corrected or improved incrementally.

(3) Fluidity of the item — Can be kept in the cloud at such low cost that it is “free” to keep and constantly slipped to new “movage” platforms.

(4) Sense of growth — The never-done-ness of an ebook (at least in the ideal) resembles a life more than a stone, animating us as creators and readers.”

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And finally, The Atlantic (Books May Be Better Objects, but E-Books Are Better Tools) splits the difference between Nicholas Carr and Kevin Kelly: “So what we have here is best described not as fixity or fluidity, but as transferability — a reassuring kind of consistency across platforms and formats. You might say that this is fixity enabled by fluidity.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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