Pet Book 10: Digital Materialities

The e-book form is a complicated and typically touchy – hypothetically speaking – subject for most bibliophiles, who often praise the tangible hard copy of a book and cast a judgmental eye on individuals who choose to purchase e-readers. However, much like a brick and mortar bookstore, e-readers themselves function as epicenters of literary consumption and development thanks to the software that has been built to bring them into existence. Matthew Kirschenbaum describes writing such types of software as “art and design, intuition and discipline, tradition and individual talent, and over time the program takes shape as a wrought object, a thing that represents one single realization of concepts and ideas.” Thus, with the creation of Kindle’s software, we have the e-book.

Looking at the e-book of The Water Babies, however, is much less impactful unless we also looking at the code that was generated in order to produce the e-book itself. Having had experience writing, reading, and editing code through my last co-op, I guessed that heading to Project Gutenberg and downloading their Kindle version of the book would allow me to open it with TextWrangler, a code-editing application for Apple software. Sure enough, line after line after line of code illustrating the paragraph breaks between text, the changes in font styles, the inclusion of images, and the beginning of a new page were laid out in front of me. Originally, I had hoped to be able to save a copy of the HTML and edit one version to see what would happen to the e-book on my computer, but that was not possible and unfortunately I was unable to play around with the code as much as I would have liked. Being able to view both the code and its e-book version side-by-side, however, was rather illuminating.

Comparing the first few pages of the book before the text to its code, we can see how the creators of the code laid out each individual line, with shifts in font style and size, as well as with small line breaks between sections. When I first looked at the e-book a few weeks ago, I noticed that as the book begins, “The Water-Babies, “A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby by,” and “Charles Kingsley (etc.)” are all on separate pages. Similarly, as illustrated below, the dedication for the book begins at the bottom of one page and then continues onto another.



At first, I had thought that this must be an error in the book’s coding, but nothing I can see in the code dictates that this is how the pages should be laid out. This ultimately begs the question of how much compatibility there is across various platforms. Though I personally do not own an e-reader, from what I do know about them, formats are supposed to be compatible and transferrable across various different viewing devices. Because it was downloaded from a third party, the book is in my iBooks application on my computer, but not on my phone, so I am unable to look at how the formatting would appear on a smaller screen. I have to wonder, then, what caused these odd formatting shifts in the way the book appears on iBooks versus the way that the code has laid out its presentation.

Another interesting facet of the code for the e-book is the inclusion of images throughout the text. As a result of the experiences I have had with coding, I knew that the inclusion of images in the e-book meant the addition of a <img .jpg /img> section of the code, wherein the name of an image that has been uploaded to a specific server can be written and thus allow the image to appear within the document itself. This type of coding can be seen below, along with the image that it is being pulled from the Gutenberg servers to appear within in the e-book.



Looking at the code like this offers a much different reader experience than what one would get if they looked at the e-book, which is similarly a much different experience than looking at a physical copy of the book. The text of the novel itself is particularly interesting to look at because in the code, it is written line after line without the visibility of paragraph breaks aside from the inclusion of <p></p> to mark where each new paragraph within the e-book will begin and end. The code, therefore, illustrates all of the invisible things that are going on within the blank spaces on the page, something we touched on earlier in the semester throughout this class. Comparing the code and the software to the actual product, therefore, shows us that every blank space is not actually a blank space at all, but rather a </p> or a </br>, as well as cell spacing and bordering, that indicates what places should be left empty in order to keep our attention on the actual text itself.

The argument of whether an e-book is really a book is, to me, vastly limiting the huge opportunities for books and literature in a digital age. Lacking the physical binding and paper that we are so accustomed to does not devalue the words and the story written on the page. Rather, e-books should be considered an opportunity for visual experimentation in the “book” form, praised for the ways that they allow readers to engage with texts they may otherwise have never read, and continuously improved to benefit the readers who are flipping through their digitally-coded pages. While I do believe there is something special about holding the physical copy of a book, there is also something special about the constant progression of the book form and literature’s lasting impact throughout history in all of the forms it has taken, and all of the forms we have yet to discover.

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