Electronic Books and Digital Illusions

Lucile Haute

Translated from the French
by Aviva Cashmira Kakar

The Old Story of the Demise of the Book

In 1928, Walter Benjamin wrote that the book is “an outdated mediation between two different filing systems” which, “in [its] traditional form, is nearing its end.”11 Walter Benjamin, “Attested Auditor of Books,” One-Way Street, Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, trans., (London, NLB, 1979), 60–61. This intellectual exercise is amusing and consists of finding between these lines an oracle regarding a mutation that makes current “e-books” their direct descendants. For some authors, the very idea of a book, understood here as a fixed form restricted to and indissociable from an industrial sector, is a thing of the past.22 François Bon, Après le livre, (Paris: Seuil, 2011). For other writers, artists or designers, it has opened up a field for esthetic and formal experimentation. Finally, for the publishing industry, the stakes are colossal. Economic models are in a state of disruption, with unit prices giving way to a fixed price or subscription. Print and screen would seem to be in a state of competition while the latter seems at times to have trouble developing its readership.33 Françoise Benhamou, Olivia Guillon, “Modèles économiques d’un marché naissant : le livre numérique,” Culture prospective, (Ministère de la Culture/DEPS, 2010), 2, 1-16. In actuality, what mutations does a book undergo when it becomes “digital”?

While it is now a given that the conception and production of books occurs through the medium of computerized systems, this means therefore that the specificity of digital books is not to be found in its tools and process of creation. It is likely that what we refer to ;without, however, defining it—as a “digital book” is no longer a book, but rather a piece of hypermedia, less a homothetic transformation of paper than a hybrid of other “augmented” or “enriched” Media.

Nevertheless, the question remains of whether the e-book can meet the expectations forged by the printed book, even as it takes advantage of the implied potentials of its inclusion in the digital sphere. What becomes of the sensory experience of reading when it is thrust into digital or other unconventional media? What is lost, what is created in the course of the translation of one perceptual mode to another, from paper to screen, from screen to paper?

Do some of these cultural digital objects attain a sort of “authenticity,” according to the signification developed by philosopher Pierre-Damien Huyghe, or does the reading experience they offer remain indelibly imbued with the millennial model of the codex? After extensive observation of the history of the arts and images since the advent of photography, Huyghe formulated that [the] “singular hypothesis according to which the authenticity of technique is seen as secondary. Its primary attribute is its capacity to mimic the productions of another, older technique which enables the dissemination of a newer one.”44 Pierre-Damien Huyghe, Le Devenir Authentique des Techniques, Centre National de la Recherche Technologique, conference, (Rennes, 2004), An “authentic public” of cultural objects created by means of a new technique is constituted only after the esthetic potentials of this technique have been “discovered” (by artists and designers), then shared (with the public at large).”

The exciting period of discovery and familiarization with the new possibilities of reading on-screen is not without its share of borrowings, transpositions and other symbolic and functional displacements. They come with variable accuracy and taste, with the aim of constructing an affordance for these new objects. This phenomenon is illustrated for example by the interface of the Newsstand application, developed for Apple mobile terminals.55 This was only valid for iOS versions 3 to 5. A radical change took place with the release of iOS 7 in 2013, when flat design was adopted. Using the mechanical resources of its medium (color screens, graphic and interactive software), the graphic format (wood texture) and the interactive animation (shading and page turning sound effects) are not directly linked to the functionality of the application, specifically accessing the content of a PDF or ePub document in order to read it. These borrowings are ornamental and skeuomorphic in nature.66 George, Basalla, The Evolution of Technology, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 107: “An element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material.” They shift characteristic—if secondary—elements of preexisting media (electronic books) and their function is to help the reader to recognize a preexisting object within a new one in order to finally qualify a digital file as a “book.” Apart from technical or conceptual definitions, what appreciable criteria would be susceptible to qualify some of these artifacts as “digital books,” even “fine digital books”?

Avant-Garde Literature and Popular Forms

Initially it was the visual arts and literature that experimented with the possibilities provided by digital tools and media. This is demonstrated by the collection of hypermedia works assembled annually by the academic group the Electronic Literature Organization77 The Electronic Literature Collection is a publication of the Electronic Literature Organization, a scientific group founded in 1999 at MIT (Cambridge, MA). It comprises three volumes (2006, 2011, 2016) each published on the Web, as well as in physical form (CD-ROM, USB key), and the register of the NT2.88 Founded in 2004, the Laboratoire de Recherche sur les Œuvres Hypermédiatiques (NT2) at UQAM has inventoried over 3600 hypermedia works from 1966 to the present day. See: These directories are representative of the field of literary experimentations with digital technology that the works of Jay David Bolter and George P. Landow have specified through hyperlinks.99 Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: the Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing, (New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991); George P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

At the end of the 1980s, from the very first experiments with hyperlinks in narrative text, hypertext was associated with fragmentation, nonlinearity, and the questioning of the most classical schematics of narrative.Thus, afternoon, a story by Michael Joyce, written in 1987 and published by Eastgate Systems in 1993 as a CD-ROM is considered the first hypertext novel and provides a singular reading experience. As the reader clicks, they access a series of narrative fragments and images. The text-image ensemble is undoubtedly less adapted for reading than it is for exploration, until the reader exhausts themselves or the text gives out. Fifteen years later, the publishers publie.net1010 Founded in 2008 by François Bon, based on an author’s cooperative. sought to revisit the first hypertext experiments and released the novel Poreuse by Juliette Mézenc.1111 Published in ePub format in 2012. There is no additional iconography or media. The hypertext links propose several reading options, according to the sensitive pen of the author and the voices of three characters

One might object that the sometimes limited readership of these works is certainly not representative of the transformation of the book as mass media. In literature ;digital or not— the tension between an informed public and the general public constantly plays itself out. This distinction was denounced by Umberto Eco in the apostille accompanying In the Name of the Rose;1212 Umberto Eco, “Postille a ’Il Nome della Rosa’,” Alphabeta, 49, (June 1983). he felt that the literary avant-garde, rather than denigrating popular forms, should appropriate them. In his words, this would be the challenge of the literary avant-garde of the 21st century.

The response to this challenge might take the form of a shift in the notion of authorship. Rather than being the fruit of a singular inspired, nurtured by a well-meaning editor, the book of the 21st century is becoming an increasingly collective effort, from conception to publication.1313 See the practice of collaborative fiction facilitated with digital tools. Signing a book as a collective enables the affirmation of a value equivalent to each of the writings that compose it: screenwriting, literature, interactive media, hypermedia and graphic media are all dehierarchized.1414 See the hypertext novel Conduit d’aération by the collective (ePub and application for iPad, 2012–2015). Lucile Haute, “L’hyperfiction Conduit d’aeration: entre litterature et design, construction d’un roman augmenté pour tablettes et liseuses,” in: Les écrans tactiles mobiles, Anaïs Guillet, ed., (Paris:, 2016).

For all that, when a book enters the publishing circuit, it is rarely cosigned in a state of indifference for the occupations that enabled its existence. Thus, L’Homme Volcan (2012) credits the specific inputs of each of its contributors: author Mathias Malzieux, illustrator Frédéric Perrin and the band Dionysos for the musical elements.1515 Created by Actialuna for Flammarion, this book-app was supported by the Centre National du Livre and was awarded the Prix du Livre Numérique 2012. The same is true for another esthetic genre, Fréquences (2011): texts are written by Célia Houdart, with sound by Sébastien Roux, graphic design by André Baldinger, photographs by Graziella Antonini, the whole produced and developed by Martin Blum.

Qualified as a “book for iPhone” by its authors, Fréquences is a paradoxical object in that it is inspired by several forms of media, from opera libretti to radiophonic design by way of the films of the cinematic letttrism.1616 Source : Fréquences is a harbinger which shows the hybrid nature of the digital book—but is it truly a book? That literature should hybridize itself with multimedia elements, confronting the new possibilities of digital technology does not mean one can assume which qualifier would be suitable for the form in which it can be experienced by a reader. The book is only one form of literature, and, in many ways, literature has no use for the book. The book, however, is one of the preferred icons of graphic design.

Formats and Definitions

Since the 18th century, the book has been defined as “an assemblage of pages bearing signs (whether handwritten or printed) destined to be read,” and thus seems, by definition, to be indistinguishable from its medium.1717 Alain Rey, Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française [1993], (Paris: Le Robert, 2010). By contrast, the digital object is based upon a dissociation between hardware and software. Consequently, one might ask whether the digital book will be defined as embracing certain technical aspects it would be meet to reconcile (to restrict even) to the specificities of the benchmark model, the printed book. It is thus qualified as “a work where the content can be read in the form of a digital file that reproduces some of the characteristics of a paper book, adapted to active reading on a screen; a book that exists in digital form, either because it is the digitized copy of a book printed on paper, or because it was created by means of a computer.”1818 La lecture numérique : réalités, enjeux et perspectives, Claire Belisle, ed., (Villeurbanne: Presses de l’ENSSIB, 2004), 273. This definition covers a very diverse group of documents, from PDFs to ePubs, applications to the Web. Their reading media is referred to as an “electronic book” and is defined as a “nomad medium with the usual format of a paper book, with a screen for visualization, enabling one to store and read certain publications.”1919 Ibid. This definition of the electronic book has been adopted by the Commission de Terminologie et de Néologie and was published in the Journal officiel de la République française in 2005: “Electronic medium in the form of a tablet equipped with random access memory (RAM), enabling the reading of a text on screen.” Consequently, a digital book may be dedicated to just one type of electronic book or be interoperable. The technical characteristics of electronic books influence their capacity to interpret digital books. This is illustrated by the evolution of termino-logies: apart from legal usage, the term “electronic book” will disappear in favor of more specific terms such as“e-reader” or “tablet,” or more simply, iPad which is the media most often mentioned in the category of enriched and interactive books.

In 2011, France created a new law which defined the digital book as an “intellectual product created by one or several authors […], sold in its digital format and published in printed form or […] liable to be printed, excepting the ancillary elements germane to digital publishing.”2020 Law no 2011-590 and decree no 2011-1499: It is less a general definition of the digital book than the framework or the application of the law relative to the pricing of digital books. The issue of this legal definition is to be able to apply the lower TVA (VAT) tax which applies to printed works, thanks to [France’s] Lang Law, which is not, in its current form, applicable to digital offerings. The last part of this definition should be emphasized; it led Bérengère Gleize and Philippe Bonnet to write that:

Since the beginning, legislators have chosen to limit the application of the law to the homothetic book. Thus it was never a question of recognizing a new object by inviting reflection upon the huge potentialities, both present and future, of the digital book.2121 Bérengère Gleize, Philippe Bonnet, “Le prix du livre numérique à l’épreuve de la loi du 26 mai 2011,” Légicom, 51, (2014), 59.

Paradoxically, could it be that, on many levels, it is precisely these “ancillary elements” that constitute the significance of the digital book?

Ergonomic Reading and Hybridizations of the Book

When printed material is transmitted to a screen, the sensory experience of reading becomes devoid of its sensuality (the feel and grain of the paper, the smell of the ink), and a sense of proprioception—the fact of having a physical, corporeal sense of the object in question. In the case of the book, proprioception provides one with a bit of information relative to the volume of text to be read, and the advancement made. The lack of materiality could be a source of disorientation for the reader. Many experiments have been conducted in order to make up for this, beginning with the visualization of a contact sheet for each of the pages of a given work (as proposed for example in iBooks for documents in a PDF or ePub format), or a system of counters as is provided in the digital version of Back Office. We find a similar principle in the chapter menu of L’Homme Volcan, which provides thumbnail images of all the pages of a chapter on one line, while the chapters follow each other vertically. Electronic paper and ePub readers often provide a horizontal indicator at the bottom of the screen which represents the entire book, in which a cursor indicates the position of the page displayed on the screen. These interfaces help the reader find their way through the pages of the book. This information transfer requires a certain cognitive effort, a learning curve, for readers before they can feel (almost) as comfortable as they are with a printed book.

In these examples, the benchmark model remains the granularity of the page, with only a few exceptions. Among these is the novel-application Alienare written by Chloé Delaume, enriched with images and videos by Franck Dion and sound design by Sophie Couronne.2222 Chloé Delaume, Alienare, (Paris: Seuil, 2015). Unlike an academic text destined for a scholarly readership, who needs to deal with the issue of verifiability, the immersive reading of a fictional text can be freed from the bounds of pagination. The graphic and interactive design, done by ABM Studio, features text on a scroll which the reader can unroll vertically. The text runs along a vertical band, interspersed with animations at the transition between chapters. A button reveals a lateral menu on the right of the screen, somewhat reminiscent of the graphic interface of software designed for the writing of computer source code such as Sublime Text, which enables one to navigate their way through the text. This hybridization of literature and film, as advertised in the description of the application on the developer’s platform2323 Source : calls to mind other projects of this new type of writing, such as the transmedia project Le Dernier Gaulois2424 France Télévisions, Nouvelles écritures, 2015, or the first scrolling graphic novel Phallaina2525 Marietta Ren, France Télévisions, Nouvelles écritures, 2016, which hybridizes animation techniques of vintage images—such as those from praxinoscopes or zootropes—along with contemporary ones, giving the viewer control over scrolling speed.

Nevertheless, the dominant model upon which industry issues focuses is not that of unique hypermedia works but rather that of the homothetic book.2626 See the figures of the Syndicat National de l’Edition [National Publishing Syndicate]: Apart from the case of the redistribution of out-of-print works, what interest might there be in the homothetic transposition of a printed work?

Going Digital with “Fine Books”

Most of the digital versions of exhibition catalogues are limited to compressed versions of the print file (sometimes even with its crop marks!). However, Odilon Redon, Prince du Rêve, published in 2011 by Réunion des Musées Nationaux (RMN) pushed the PDF format to its limits. The printed catalogue was released in two digital versions: a fifty-one page e-album which presented only a selection of the texts and illustrations from the catalogue, and a 463-page catalogue. This edition was the second published by RMN at the App Store, after the e-album Monet in 2010—the year the iPad was launched. Unlike the e-album, the complete version of the catalogue was in keeping with the scholarly and cultural requirements of an exhibition catalogue, notably by presenting all the texts of the curator. Each of the two versions does not merely replicate the structure of the printed work, but rather enriches it by integrating hyperlinks into the table of contents, along with videos. The second is exhaustive and takes advantage of its digital medium, providing excellent high-definition reproductions of the images. This level of detail enables the reader to study the workmanship of the painting with the zoom function. A printed version cannot reach the level of detail of the reproductions presented in the digital catalogue—sometimes they can attain the actual size of the works, some of which are murals.

A book can also be digital by nature, designed by its authors to be read on screen. This is the case of the aforementioned works L’Homme Volcan and Fréquences. The first is published in the format of an application for the iPad and numbers eighty-six screens/pages, mostly comprised of texts and illustrations and, on occasion, animations. The second is published as an application for the iPhone and contains fifty-six vertically scrollable screen pages that deftly associate the text read with the text remaining (particularly the section containing text that is crossed out, covered by a snow screen effect) comprising both fixed and interactive elements.

The appeal of the application format is the promise of a qualitative interactive experience. Before being published on the App Store, the application was validated by the distributor, who is also the creator of the reading medium, thus ensuring an optimal experience on their machines. When the graphic and interactive levels follow high standards, when the articulation between the various media, is as seamless as with Fréquences, the interpretation of the digital book by the e-reader must be perfect, so that the reading experience can be true to the authors’ intent.

The choice of a proprietary ecosystem is heading in this direction. Unlike free formats such as ePub, it is supposed to guarantee a better user experience due to the way the medium and the content fit together. An ePub document based on Web technologies (HTML, CSS, JavaScript) is “passive” and needs to be interpreted by a software reader. The default reader supplied by Apple is the iBooks application which, on an iPad or iPhone, has limited access to the machine’s resources to calculate graphic renderings. Consequently, this slows the display of pages that contain high-definition images (such as the Redon catalogue) or too many interactive elements. As Thomas Bijon, then Editor-in-Chief of Digital Publications at RMN, stated in an interview, in the course of the passage from page to screen, animation and interactivity have become crucial for the digital art book ;it is precisely these attributes that are substitutes for the workmanship of the printed work (the quality of the paper, printing and binding).2727 Interview with Thomas Bijon conducted by Nolwenn Tréhondart and Lucile Haute: “Le livre s’anime, devient vivant, réagit quand on le caresse..,” in Livres d’art numériques. De la conception à la réception, Alexandra Saemmer and Nolwenn Trehondart, ed., (Paris: Hermann, 2017), 97. In the context of a high-end publication, graphics that lag or that cannot load are not an option.

The compensation for the choice of a proprietary ecosystem is the loss of control upon the availability of these cultural works. The reading experience is optimal on the condition that the technical support, the operating system and the application are in sync. Often, the digital publication bugs in the face of more or less planned technical obsolescence, confirming the hypothesis that transience is a characteristic intrinsic to digital objects.2828 See the collective work Les Frontières de l’œuvre numérique, Alexandra Saemmer and Sophie Lavaud, ed., (Presses Universitaires de Saint-Etienne, 2014). Apart from artistic experimentations, this also concerns industrial digital objects. While the magazine press is a sector that produces objects whose editorial pertinence is intrinsically ephemeral and contextual, nonetheless, apart from its materiality as a printed object, the magazine remains something which can be consulted in a time frame far distant from its moment of publication. This is not always the case for its digital counterparts, as attested by the example of the application Vogue Hommes Japan Digital Vol.1, released by Condé Nast in 2010, one year before Apple launched its Newsstand app, a press portal which offers access to all magazines and journals.2929 Newsstand would be abandoned in 2015 with the advent of iOS 9. Condé Nast adopted the model imposed by Apple, and consequently Vogue Homme Japan Digital will never have a volume two.

Applications that are spectacular in terms of size, development cost and the brouhaha that accompanies their launch are far from rare. They are the digital versions of the richly ostentatious coffee table book, proudly displayed for a time, until it is replaced, set on a shelf and forgotten. Indeed, in comparison to Fréquences’s (modest) 66 MB, L’Homme Volcan’s 523 MB might seem a rather large volume for machines designed more as portals than as storage spaces (and generally limited to holding 16 or 32 MB). Moreover, the size of the Odilon Redon, Prince du Rêve 1840-1916 catalogue (1.58 GB) or the Bjork: Biophilia app (1.2 GB) means that the moment such works have been consulted they would need to be uninstalled. Consequently, it is often a total loss, as the laborious task of going through one’s buying history on the App Store attests.

In the music industry, an app might accompany the release of an album to offer a more enhanced experience or experiment with new commercial paradigms. This is the case of Björk: Biophilia, an app that was released with Björk’s album Biophilia in 2011, with graphic design by M/M Paris. It worth noting that the recent 2017 update means that the app remains available on the App Store. Initially free, it featured games, videos, and also bundled purchases (excerpts from the album). Now one has to pay for the app but it includes the entire album. In 2013, Lady Gaga launched Artpop. This app, designed by TechHaus, accompanies the eponymous album, which features several artistic partners (including Jeff Koons, who designed the album cover); it also includes videos, a social network, and a generator of animated GIFs. Although, it has been removed from the App Store, fan documentation persists in the form of videos, GIFs, etc.

Digital editions are now confronted with the issue of their impermanence. The adoption of a standard format such as ePub is moving in the direction of greater technical stability. Its interoperability ensures that it will remain readable over time, as compared to a digital object produced using a proprietary language,3030 Apart from the case of works created using the Flash language, for more on the current difficulties involved in the consultation of digital works whose platforms are now obsolete, see: Gilles Rouffineau, Éditions off-line, (Paris: B42, 2018). and only available through one point of distribution.3131 See the above-mentioned cases of Artpop and Vogue Homme Japan Digital Vol.1. From now on, the key issue moves from content (digital books) towards that which enables its expression using appropriate media (an e-book). Although a document renderer is integrated into an application, standard publication formats such as ePub and PDF require interpretation by a reader. As Bijon, cited above, specifies, it is the reader that defines the conditions regarding the perception of the content gathered by the authors, graphic artists and publishers that make up the work. However, a few months after the announcement of the impending end-of-life of Readium,3232 “The Readium development community regrets to announce the end-of-life (EOL) for the Readium Chrome app,” October 1, 2018, one of the only ways to read enriched ePub materials in the Android/Google Chrome environment, we can to see that the fight for the “digital coffee table book,” along with its technical conditions of existence, is far from over.