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Why is your e-reader the size and shape that it is?

Why is your e-reader the size and shape that it is?  Because it’s trying to mimic the books you used to read.  And they were the size and shape they were mostly as a result of the size of the sheets of paper that one man could comfortably make by hand, from linen rags, a single sheet at a time.  Or, if we go back even further, as result of the size and shape of the parchment sheets that could be made from the skins of calves, sheep and goats.  The ancient technologies of the book reappear, transformed, at the bleeding edge of new technology.

The iPod mimics the page turns of the printed book, using patented software.  In September 2014, Amazon introduced new versions of its Kindle e-reader, the seventh generation of that product.  The flagship model, the Kindle Voyage, which Amazon calls ‘our most advanced e-reader ever’, features ‘reimagined page turns’ that ‘deliver tactile feedback from a haptic actuator’, in order to mimic the sensory experience of holding the printed book.  These e-readers aim not simply to displace the printed book, but rather to imitate it in a new format.

In this respect, they reprise a strategy that’s over five hundred years old.  When Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type and the modern printing press in the 1430s, his books closely resembled manuscript books.  The shape of the letters, the format of the volume and the page layout all derived from manuscript books, and Gutenberg left blank spaces in some of his books for the craftsmen who worked on manuscripts to add illuminated capital letters and other kinds of decoration.  In order to be widely accepted, the new-fangled technology of print had to mimic the established technology of manuscript, just as e-readers now mimic the printed book.

But print didn’t simply kill off manuscript, any more than e-books are now going to kill the printed book.  Instead, they continued to circulate alongside each other.  Authors chose to circulate some works in manuscript rather than print well into the nineteenth century, while readers writing in their books turned the printed book into a multi-media object containing both print and manuscript.  In order to understand the history of the book, then, we need to understand how different technologies for circulating text relate to one another in the media ecology.  The long history of mediation and re-mediation is an essential tool for understanding how the book has shaped our knowledge, and how it might do so in the future. 

Tom Mole, Reader in English Literature