This question points to a second possible mode of survival for the paper book in the digital age. Purists will argue that some important texts ought to be read in their original form. This may be especially convincing when it comes to the novel, a literary form so bound up in the history of the printed book—and, by many accounts, well past its golden age as the digital transition begins.
Of course, advances in book technology often add to texts as much as they take away. For example, innovations in wood engraving led to Gustav Doré’s famous 1863 illustrations of Quixote.
When we speak of illustrations, book covers, typesetting, and other features specific to a given print edition, we’re analyzing what the French theorist Gérard Genette calls “paratexts.” In Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, he writes, “[A]lthough we do not always know whether these productions are to be regarded as belonging to the text, in any case they surround and extend it, precisely in order to present it, in the usual sense of this verb but also in the strongest sense: to make present, to ensure the text’s presence in the world, its ‘reception’ and consumption in the form (nowadays, at least) of a book.”
As e-books overhaul and re-present many long-standing paratextual categories, we trade off layers of established meaning. The typescript page shown here, from James Joyce’s Ulysses, is a famous example of a paratext with clear authorial intent. Joyce asked the printer to enlarge the final, redundant period at the end of the “Ithaca” chapter. On a Kindle, the reader can adjust the font size herself.
Joyce wanted his free-floating period to be especially visible because it meant more than the average punctuation mark—it gave a full stop to the long “sentence” that was Ulysses. Recently, several young writers have further cultivated paratextual elements like punctuation, typesetting, and binding as arenas of authorial expression. Dave Eggers prints body text on the cover of his book; Mark Z. Danielewski uses colored, upside-down, and Braille fonts; Salvador Plascencia crosses out words and blacks over whole columns of text. Laurence Sterne’s 1759 novel Tristram Shandy, with its blank, black, and marbled pages, stands as an early precedent for these sorts of explorations.
Tree of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2010 novel-by-erasure, is one example of a paratextually audacious paper book that would lose much in translation to an e-book. Foer picked through the pages of his favorite novel (Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles), pulling out words to create a new narrative composed entirely from Schulz’s raw material. Foer’s originality can be questioned (Tom Phillips’ A Humument tried the same trick 40 years ago), and his finished product arguably fails to bridge the divide between conceptual art and literature, but the design work is unimpeachable. Substantial portions of each page are die cut, creating evocative, three-dimensional wells of negative space. Schulz was killed in the Holocaust at the age of 50 with several good works likely left in him. Foer’s tribute gives paratextual emphasis to this loss.
Unlike Cervantes, Joyce, and Schulz, living writers can raise objections when their work is adulterated to fit new forms of literary consumption. For example, Salvador Plascencia, author of the 2005 McSweeney's novel The People of Paper, has been vocal in asking that readers enjoy his book in printed form and not on Kindle, Nook, iPad, or other e-readers. He points to the title of his novel by way of an explanation. “Readers would be missing an essential material metaphor if they were on a pixel reader,” he says.
“That, and I don't want hapless readers enlarging my fonts and thinking that the book lives in this androgynous space that is neither recto nor verso,” Plascencia adds. “The book is sexed: on your left you have a verso, in the middle your gutter, and to the right your recto. E-readers are neutering and spaying our sexy novels.” In The People of Paper, for example, different storylines play out in verso and recto, respectively, with odd-numbered pages following one set of characters and even-numbered pages another.
This is one future for the paper book in the age of digital proliferation—a select group of design-conscious authors will continue to address their creations specifically to the printed medium. Their themes, like Plascencia’s and Foer’s, will likely revolve around the history and practice of writing books, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary—one of literature’s greatest themes has always been itself.