David RobertsBy Professor David Roberts, Acting Executive Dean of the Faculty of Performance, Media and English at Birmingham City University, discusses the exciting moment of text history we’re in with electronic and paper books.

It’s a great case of orthographic sabotage. Such was the giddy rise of the e-book that someone somewhere decided it wasn’t right to refer to the printed variety as simply a ‘book’ (doing so is what sociolinguists call the ‘unmarked’ option, just as ‘man’ used to stand for ‘mankind’ – the default, unquestioned, superior, normal entity). So someone somewhere decided to come up with ‘p-book,’ to put it on equal terms with its parvenu digital cousin: e for electronic, p for paper. One is no more real than the other, went the argument. There’s p and there’s e, and we move between the two.

Except the p has been hijacked. If you’re an e-book fan, p stands for paper. If you’re one of those people – increasing in number according to a report in last week’s Sunday Times – who has (i) dropped an Amazon Kindle on a tiled floor, (ii) dropped it in the bath, (iii) sat on it, (iv) found the darned thing just doesn’t work, (v) got frustrated with not being able to check back easily, or (vi) despaired of the chronic ugliness of its fonts, you know that p does not stand for paper. No sir. It stands for proper.

Let’s face it, there are plenty of books where a Kindle is useless. Picture books; books with footnotes, books with endnotes, books with lots of cross-references, books full of carefully lineated poems or drama scripts (I could go on). I wondered once about buying a load of Kindles to teach from but quickly realised that half the class time would vanish while students were trying to find Act 2, Scene 4, lines 157-158 of King Lear. When you think about it, p-books are, like handwriting, a very subtle and adaptable technology.

But I still can’t quite get over the excitement of reading a good review of a book one moment and then, magically, twenty seconds later, having a copy of it. At the upper end of technological flash, I can’t, either, get over the rapture of owning a £9.99 app of Shakespeare’s sonnets which allows you to flick between different versions of the texts, commentaries by academic authorities, readings by actors, and all sorts of combinations of those. Show me a p-book that can do all that and I’ll buy it.

So, when The Sunday Times says that e-books are stalling and p-books are back, I raise an eyebrow. It’s temporary market saturation in a recession. The technology of e-books is on the march. I have brilliant colleagues who are working on an e-text annotation tool (try it and see: http://emargin.bcu.ac.uk/) which allows you to share scribblings on e-texts. Kindles are developing fast and soon they’ll get cheaper. My love of reading e-books has only intensified the pleasure I take in p-books. We don’t have to choose. We’re in an exciting moment of text history, so let’s enjoy it.

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David Roberts

David Roberts

Faculty of Performance, Media and English at Birmingham City University
David Roberts

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