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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In 1928, Walter Benjamin wrote that the book is “an outdated mediation between two different filing systems” which, “in [its] traditional form, is nearing its end.”11 Walter Benjamin, “Attested Auditor of Books,” One-Way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 Tech…