Turning on my bedside lamp, I have a little pang of nostalgia, but no regret, as I remember the long-gone image of my bedside table that was always stacked high with books, each as indispensable as the next in their promise of great reading pleasure. Still, I am surprised by how easily we switched from an ancestral culture of printed books into a still nascent one of digital books. Even though I‘d been a lover of books since I was a boy, of bookshops and libraries and used book stalls, and an amateur collector of antique editions, I was quick to embrace the promises of the digital revolution, while being fully aware of its massive implications: it’s not everyday that a cultural medium gets such an overhaul.
Writing on clay and wax tablets, on sheaths of papyrus and parchment existed for several millennia, and the process introduced by Gutenberg in 1440 still exists after more than 500 years of good and loyal service. The shift to the e-book took place gradually, in fact. First, through the use of personal computers which got us used to digital writing then reading: our letters, our reports, our articles and books have long been typed out on a Mac or PC keyboard. Followed by the digitization, not without some pain, of the book itself which held out a lot longer than its predecessors: music, video and video games. The short history of the e-book began in 1998, simultaneously in the United States and in France where the company Cytale and its famous Cybook were created.
The arrival of the year 2000 did not mark any great leap forward, proving once again that, without a complete ecosystem surrounding it, a device on its own is not enough to jump start new applications. But awareness in the publishing trade grew in the years that followed, up to 2010 which marked the book’s true entry into the digital age, even if the e-book market still accounted for less than 1% of the total publishing market in the US. Now become a commonplace, we have a host of digital reading media: the new generation of e-paper screens that succeeded Amazon’s Kindle, the small screens on mobile phones that triggered new book and comic reading habits, and of course tablets that began with the great fanfare of the release of Apple’s iPad, a real missing link in portable devices.
The story of digital publishing began with technical content, dictionaries and encyclopaedias, but also Manga comics and adult content, especially in Japan. But it now involves virtually every possible genre, even literature which clearly enjoys no special status. The printed book is still being sustained by nostalgic readers and illustrated and fine art books, and is even reinventing itself to some degree in the new published works that blend traditional printing with new electronic pages, combining flexibility and audio and video interactivity. Every corner of the publishing business were forced to evolve to help steer this profound change in direction. Giant and specialty e-bookshops became the norm, incorporating Apple, Google, Nintendo and Sony which all became distribution platforms for e-books. Book prices took advantage of the shift to go down, and a substantial portion of the global catalogue is now accessible for a modest fee, and even for free in some cases.
The entire publishing industry has had to reinvent itself, in fact, by introducing innovative multimedia works that incorporate new built-in tools (lexicons, dictionaries), new text, picture, video, voice and music-based content. Authors now have an entirely new arena to work in, making us ever more curious to discover new literary forms which, following through on the trajectory of the classic novel and the nouveau roman, could be called the hyper-novel. Switching off my light, and just before slipping into the folds of another night’s sleep, I glance over at my little device that contains thousands of books, wondering as Ray Bradbury might have had he written “Fahrenheit 451” decades later, at what temperature does an e-book burn?@