The "processed book" is about content, not technology, and contrasts with the "primal book"; the latter is the book we all know and revere: written by a single author and viewed as the embodiment of the thought of a single individual. The processed book, on the other hand, is what happens to the book when it is put into a computerized, networked environment. To process a book is more than simply building links to it; it also includes a modification of the act of creation, which tends to encourage the absorption of the book into a network of applications, including but not restricted to commentary. Such a book typically has at least five aspects: as self-referencing text; as portal; as platform; as machine component; and, as network node. An interesting aspect of such processing is that the author's relationship to his or her work may be undermined or compromised; indeed, it is possible that author attribution in the networked world may go the way of copyright. The processed book, in other words, is the response to romantic notions of authorship and books. It is not a matter of choice (as one can still write an imitation, for example, of a Victorian novel today) but an inevitable outcome of inherent characteristics of digital media.
The electronic book or ebook has arrived, but it has not come very far. Optimistic expectations of the rate of ebook acceptance have been dashed, and numerous people are debating why something as obviously useful as the digital display of text has not already begun to replace paper. It may be that the current debate about electronic publishing is missing the point, however; it may be too focused on devices (however amazingly cool these devices may be) and is not reaching to the heart of the matter, which is why we care about books in the first place. We care about books because of what's inside them, because of what they mean. The intriguing aspect of electronic publishing is not simply whether we will all someday dump print in favor of screens or what file format will become the standard, but how electronic publishing will affect what goes inside of books. It is my view that our current notion of books is naïve, raw, and that what electronic publishing will give us is something that is highly thought out, cooked and processed. To the world of processed food and processed hair, we now add the processed book.
Some definitions are in order. Usually books are identified with their physical package. That package is generally between four and six inches in one dimension and seven and nine inches in the other; it is printed on paper; and it is the product of an author (usually one). The content of such a package, however, is also called a book, and that is the kind of book I wish to discuss here. As we begin to publish some books in electronic form, the print package gets tossed out and only the content remains. Is an ebook (or e-book or eBook) the content, the device that displays it, or both? Some interested parties now use the term etext to distinguish the content from its package. This would be more helpful if enough people subscribed to the convention. What I will call books are texts or etexts or content. This kind of book is the same whether it is displayed in a handsomely bound hardcover book, within a Web browser, as an Adobe PDF file, or in Microsoft Reader (among a multitude of other formats). By this definition, the book of the future will be a ... book!
Here we should note that once we separate a book's content from its hardcopy package, the notion of what is "book-length" disappears. A very short book is likely to be about 120 pages, which comes to about 40,000 words. Most books are roughly three times that length, and those long, gooey novels you curl up with on the beach can be twice that again—well over 200,000 words. I am drafting this document just after completing a commercial novel of about a half-million words, and I enjoyed every one of them. The connection between the physical book and our sense of a book-length idea is important because the literal physical package has come to define what we mean by a well-thought-out argument or story—because such an idea would fill the pages of a book. In other words, the accident of the convenient size of a single volume has served to create an arbitrary image of an intellectual category; the medium in this case has served to define the message. But in electronic form, anything goes. A book (probably better to refer to it as a text, though that term lacks the historical resonance of book) could be millions of words long or it could be a simple e-mail of a few lines: No particular length serves to define what is meant by a complete idea and the physical display of such a book or text (whether on a computer screen, a personal digital assistant, or whatever) is thoroughly agnostic when it comes to meaning. It would be interesting to speculate what it will mean culturally to lose the sense of a well-developed idea when such an idea is no longer hardwired to paper and ink. Throughout this essay I use the term book to refer to texts of any length.
Copyright © 2003 by Joseph J. Esposito. All rights reserved. The essay may be distributed for noncommercial purposes provided that the author is cited with his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.