© Céline Chuang
© Céline Chuang

Pages Unbound

Picture a glass jar, transparent and self-contained: the formal unity and crystallized perfection of a beautifully bound book. Drop the glass jar, and it shatters: the formal unity of the beautifully bound book disintegrates, and all that remains is 00101: the digital text. Today, one no longer reads the sacred text, but rather the less-than-sacred, destabilized, indeterminate, and open text (McKenzie 35).

Digitization demands not only a redefinition of the page, but also of the book itself. The codex now has several cousins: the ebook, Kobo, iPad, and Kindle; and this evolution provokes two questions: namely, what is a ‘book’ and how does one read it? While bibliographers like Paul Needham assert that a collation of paper in a warehouse does not constitute a book, and that what truly makes a book is its binding, Joseph Dane takes the argument further:

I believe what Needham means by ‘binding’ is . . . not real binding, and I do not think the distinction between book and nonbook can be made on the basis of internal evidence . . . What distinguishes a book from a nonbook involves something external to the book itself—its actual use and potential for use—something contained less in the book itself than in the institution of book distribution. A book . . . must be defined as a book functionally, not essentially. (61-2)

Though I cannot agree entirely with Dane’s definition—which again follows the trend of conceiving of texts as transcendent of their materiality or ‘real binding’—I do find his definition compelling in that it suggests that books are, by definitionconstructions: that what constitutes a book is its assemblage by readers and ‘actual use’. Further, Dane’s definition facilitates a comparison between print and electronic text: that both are undeniably ‘books’ in their potential for use but are distinguished by the manner in which they are used—that is, the order of printed text is largely fixed, while the order of electronic text is not. The beauty of electronic text is that it has no fixed order: existing, perpetually, in a state of entropy. Every time we surf the Web, we engage in a dynamic and discursive process of bookbinding—assuming, simultaneously, the role of publisher, printer, and reader. To read a book in the digital age is to navigate the book-space, where the formal unity of the hardback splits into a million atoms of soft blue. Chapters are replaced by “textual rivers with ever changing shorelines;” the Internet becomes a sea of information that must be ‘surfed’ or navigated; and ‘browsing’ becomes a nautical exploration—‘reading’ a marine metaphor (Gervais 185). Unlike the codex, digital texts do not fix words to a page. Like a scroll, words on the screen move fluidly—descending in a flow of never-ending thumbnails. Readers drift aimlessly between textual islands, attempting to distinguish container from content; context from text—even signifier from signified. Digital environments construct container and content relationally: a phenomenon that Matthew G. Kirschenbaum describes as ‘formal materiality’ (Liu 12). Multi-centred, the digital text is ceaselessly undergoing processes of deferral through hyperlinks. Meaning spills onto adjacent webpages, which “appear to us one after the other like the successive terraces of a large garden” (Eco 305).


In this way, the Internet “with its millions of pages and multiple reading paths” becomes a “vast hypertext of global proportions” (Hayles 26). Every text is linked to every other text; red leather bindings disintegrate; and pages become semi-permeable membranes. Hyperlinks poke holes in the book, allowing for a selective exchange between the text and its surrounding environment:

The electronic text is permeable in a way the printed text is not, not isolated from other texts in its physical integrity but existing in the same environment . . . unable to ‘shut out other texts’ that are networked with it. Any document can be linked to and thus become part of any other text. The resulting hypertext is thus the materialization of a Barthian concept of textuality itself, a textual environment in which any text can intersect and be intersected by an infinite variety of others. (Kastan 125)

There is no back cover to the online text, and hypertext editions, like Electronic Beowulf, reflect this: presenting readers with a selection of facsimiles and transcriptions, thereby demonstrating that “there is no ‘fixed’ text,” as the work “moves constantly from exemplar to exemplar, so the parameter of any one text is not clearly defined” (Caie 33-4). By declining to conflate the text, the editor invites the reader to take her place: reconstructing Beowulf (or Shakespeare) using a kit-set “of a couple of virtual facsimiles” (McKenzie 38).

Fragmentation and Condensation

~ You never step into the same stream twice.

The shift from book to ebook, like the shift from page to screen, destabilizes the book-as-object: closed, authentic, original—bracketed by one-inch margins. If a great library is a “herbarium of feelings and passions, the jar in which the dried up fragments of all human societies are stored,” then the Internet is an unweeded garden that grows to seed: endlessly replicating itself in a process of mitosis that is impossible to contain or control (Eco 305). A digital text is a restless text—one that is forever updating and refreshing—and a digital reader is forever responding to those changes. Readers are no longer drifting (to appropriate Jonathan Hope’s title), but drowning in a sea of texts and data:

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds

Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,

When down her weedy trophies and herself

Fell in the weeping brook. (Hamlet 4.7.143-6)

If to read “we need a certain kind of silence, an ability to filter out the noise,” then how can we sail To the Lighthouse when we are drowning in texts and data (Ulin 34)? Poetry is squeezed (like a ship in a bottle) into 140 characters—tiny paper cranes that unfold as we scroll down an endless feed of Twitter updates:


The flood of texts and data requires not only that we check our facts but also that we “organize and position our learning within an argument,” to make meaning (Eco 81). Readers survive by editing out1 unwanted or inaccurate information:


Offshoots: Extra-textuality

Roland Barthes’ concept of textuality2 is mirrored in Ong’s statement concerning the shift from oral to written forms of communication: with the arrival of script, “encoded visible markings engage with words fully so that the exquisitely intricate structures and references evolved in sound can be visibly recorded exactly in their specific complexity and, because visibly recorded, can implement the production of still more exquisite structures and references, far surpassing the potentials of oral utterance” (Ong 84-5). The transition from print to digital platforms is similarly intricate; linking every text to every other text, and joining verbal with non-verbal elements in the form of iconotext and cartography.

  1. An inability to do so is what Clay Shirky terms “filter failure.” []
  2. Where ‘any text can intersect and be intersected by an infinite variety of others.’ []

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