This picture shows the presents that I (rather unexpectedly!) received from my (wonderful, generous) parents for completing my PhD. In the top right is, quite recognisably, an iPad: the future – or is it present? – of publishing. And the aged book and blue pamphlet next to it? That’s a first edition of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1857) and one of the original serialised parts (No. XI, October 1856).
The contrast between these gifts couldn’t be more apparent, the past and future of the history of the book; and questions around the history and development of the book have been very much on my mind this week following the “What is Academic Writing” session run by IATL on Monday. In a day of interesting talks, it was Richard Miller’s discussion of writing instruction in the US which stuck with me, focusing as it did on the shift to new media and what this means for writing. Using images from Al Gore’s Our Choice recently published as an eBook app, which makes thoroughly innovative use of interactive features – Miller argued that this is what we are now – or will be, or need to be – writing for; the text is no longer just text, but increasingly embracing not just visual/auditory media, but this entirely responsive interactive style. And this, he stated, was what we now need to be teaching students to write for and with. With the example of his text2cloud blog he showed how he is changing the future of writing instruction by teaching students to work with new media so that their academic essays are written through and for digital technologies. Video, sound, and other audio-visual features were integrated into the text such that these became not just texts for critical reflection but part of the process of analysis themselves.
This raised a lot of interesting ideas about teaching and learning academic writing (and critical thinking more generally), and whilst I’m not convinced that the days of the academic essay are over, there were many discernable advantages that I could see in this, not least getting students really engaged in the writing process – not just focusing on the end product for the final mark, but really getting involved in critical analysis in a much more involved and responsive way. The open-endedness of the project seemed particularly valuable – that students continued to work on pieces past submission deadline because, as Miller pointed out, thinking doesn’t stop the moment the piece is turned in (or at least, we’d hope it doesn’t! hence the value of actively enabling that on-going process). The lingering question for me was whether the advent of new media needs to signal the end of the academic essay in the way Miller suggests; why does new media need to be positioned as diametrically opposed to the traditional academic essay? Can’t all of this fantastic work also develop into a reinvigorated approach to “traditional” academic writing? There’s a lot of value in the crafting of argument and reflective processes that enable that, which the immediacy of new media doesn’t seem to allow for.
All of which I’m still mulling over as this academic year ends and fresh opportunities for teaching hopefully await at the end of the summer. But in the meantime there were some more immediately resonant questions about the history of the book and where we’re at with the move into the digital age, especially as I sit here with Dickens and the iPad side by side. The literary student in me wants to resist the move to the digital age, no more so than when handling a 160-year old copy of my favourite novel, in all its sturdy weightiness. I can’t help but feel guilty at downloading a book or two onto the iPad, which feels like another nail in the coffin for the physical book, even though it’s justifiably so much easier when your research largely focuses on 800-page novels. And what about this idea of writing for this new form of reading, crafting academic work into a form that not only embraces but is specifically designed for new technologies, which really seems like the final nail in the coffin for print publication, as though we’re thoroughly capitulating to digital media and decrying the end of the book as we know it.
But then the periodical pamphlet is a stark reminder that perhaps all of this is just sentimentalising the book, because the core concept here is nothing new: as the periodical reminds us, writing has always adapted to and embraced new forms. With the advent of serial publication, Dickens and others experimented with writing that was specifically crafted to the new possibilities this raised, utilising the formal qualities that the material format both enabled and delimited. (And if we bemoan the presence of targeted adverts on every webpage, the 27 (!) pages of advertising that precede and commence the pamphlet again stand as testament that this is nothing new!) Going further back, too, the development of writing has always been dependent on the material conditions of the book, evolving and adapting to new forms of print publication. The written text itself isn’t a “natural” product, it’s a cultural artifact, and writing is always a historically and materially conditioned process. So whilst it’s easy to despair as paper gives way to screen, perhaps it’s not so much the end of the book but just another stage in the evolution of what a book is, what it can do, and the possibilities it offers us as writers.