Tuesday, January 10, 2012

An Era of Perpetual Revision

Some reflections from The Wall Street Journal. E-books are open to constant revision and updating.
An e-book, I realized, is far different from an old-fashioned printed one. The words in the latter stay put. In the former, the words can keep changing, at the whim of the author or anyone else with access to the source file. The endless malleability of digital writing 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.

Beyond giving writers a spur to eloquence, what the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein calls "typographical fixity" served as a cultural preservative. It helped to protect original documents from corruption, providing a more solid foundation for the writing of history. It established a reliable record of knowledge, aiding the spread of science. It accelerated the standardization of everything from language to law. The preservative qualities of printed books, Ms. Eisenstein argues, may be the most important legacy of Gutenberg's invention.

Once digitized, 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. (Read entire article.)

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