Is a networked book still a book?

Yesterday I discussed Umberto Eco’s lecture on the future of books from the perspective of whether e-books can replace traditional books. I think Eco rightly distinguishes between “books to read” and “books to consult,” with electronic books to consult likely replacing traditional ones, but traditional books to read maintaining long-term dominance over e-books.

However, I do think the “books to read” / “books to consult” dichotomy oversimplifies things. I might read a computer manual cover to cover, but I might also consult it for just the information I need. Ditto for many (most?) scholarly works. The argument against Google print has often been that it treats all books as if they were books to consult, and this is true, but we might also consult any book, even the quintessential “book to read.”

Eco makes another important point about e-texts. Often e-books have been hailed as a revolutionary new medium because of the infinite possibilities of hyperlinking. Eco argues that the hyperlinking in itself does nothing to expand the original text:

Now suppose that a finite and limited text is organised hypertextually by many links connecting given words with other words. In a dictionary or an encyclopaedia the word wolf is potentially connected to every other word that makes up part of its possible definition or description (wolf is connected to animal, to mammal to ferocious, to legs, to fur, to eyes, to woods, to the names of the countries in which wolves exist, etc.). In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf can be connected only with the textual sections in which it shows up or in which it is explicitly evoked. The series of possible links is finite and limited. How can hypertextual strategies be used to “open” up a finite and limited text?

Eco is saying that the value of a text comes precisely from the static arrangement of its words. In theory, anyone could have written Hamlet — the words were available to them — but Shakespeare did it first, so we value Shakespeare.

There was a lively discussion at Future of the Book a few days ago about whether a “networked book” was still a book. It is a “text,” but it is infinitely variable and constantly modifiable. Eco would say it is not a book, or even a text. A “text” is a fixed sequence of words. It might be modified — even Hamlet might — but it would no longer be the same text.

There is certainly an inclination among wiki members to preserve a version of their work. Wikipedia is planning a static, printed version, and other, smaller wiki projects have published versions of what they create. Is this because they have some notion that a static text is a different (better?) thing from a networked text?

There are some real benefits to “fixing” texts. I can remember (but I’m too lazy to look up) a significant online debate a year or so ago on whether it’s ethical to change a blog posting once it’s up. The consensus seemed to be that other than to correct typos, it was not. Why? Because others would respond to the original text, and they’d be made to look like idiots if the original was subsequently changed. My personal practice follows this consensus — it certainly seems like a reasonable approach. Larger revisions can be made in the comments section or in clearly marked updates.

We value fixity, but we hail the e-text as a “revolutionary” medium because of its maleability. However, it seems that maleability is not its true virtue: interactivity is. Paradoxically, maleability inhibits interactivity, so we typically form conventions to suppress the ill effects of maleability. And sure, I don’t modify my blog posts, but I respond to others in my posts, and others respond to mine in theirs. Later, I might write a new post synthesizing these thoughts. Still later, I might write a book that brings these thoughts together with newer (and older) ones. All these are good things. Which one is a book? Probably only the last.

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