Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is poetry imbued with sensational moments of touch; the poet exploits the materiality of the printed page, using it as a physical vessel that escapes the distance between the body of the 19th-century writer and the reader. His overflowing lines of verse knowingly toy with the limits of that restrictive medium.
We may be forgiven in our bias towards the book: it is more transportable than the painted hieroglyph and maintains a romantic feel not possessed by the eBook. The bibliophile will celebrate the book as an artefact. The personalness of the written inscription; the many-thumbed, yellow-faced pages of Austen that your mother keeps on her living-room shelves; your brother’s petrified bogey immortalised in his copy of Beast Quest. The slow demise of the public library and high-street bookshop in the face of the immediacy of the digital word beckons the question: is it mere aestheticism that is keeping alive the book?
William Caxton’s introduction of the printing press to England in the late 15th century allowed for greater dissemination of information than ever previously possible and has only snowballed since. The written manuscript, copied out laboriously in the medieval scriptorium, was displaced by the mass print. The personality of those early handwritten texts was aptly sacrificed for accessibility, resulting in an exponential rise in literacy rates and for a transmission of voices and ideas unconceivable beforehand. The eBook undeniably contributes to that same trajectory. The digital format boasts many clear benefits. Not only does the immateriality of the medium allow for reduced prices which enables consumers with less purchasing power to access texts and escape the potential for detrimental environmental consequences that cheap, mass printing entails, but it offers the opportunity for something far more exciting.
Had Shakespeare lived today it is not impossible that the Henriad wouldn’t have been a Netflix series. It is easily forgotten that the novel is only several hundred years old and that the epic for centuries was perceived as the most senior literary form. Content and form should never exist in a haphazard coalition but inform and manipulate the limits of one another. The eBook, whilst still in its infancy, transcends the physical restrictions of the printed book. The touchscreen may seem an unsexy and more distant and less personable medium than paper, but its possibilities are immense and will no doubt inspire brave new forms. Literature’s trajectory, as is the case with all art, is incessant and uncontainable: Whitman’s poetry would no doubt have aimed for different horizons if composed upon a MacBook.
I am not suggesting that we throw our copies of Dickens and family bibles on a bonfire and dance to the dulcet tones of Stephen Fry’s audiobook narrations in the flying embers. Publishing will of course continue indefinitely and with good reason. Book exchanges are becoming ever more present and companies like Mr. Bezos’s are allowing for easier purchasing of printed texts, even if this has serious implications for small publishers. With the eBook’s rise, our relationship inexplicably must change with its material cousin. Nonetheless: there is much to be excited about.