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How do the physical properties of books inform our reading experience?


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The rise and fall of the e-book has been met with harsh criticisms – and, of late, a sharp decline in sales. In fact, for the past few years, physical book sales have been on the rise.

But should we ignore e-books and other digital forms of storytelling in favour of going analogue? Dr Matt Hayler, and a team of researchers who are part of EREAD (an e-reading research network), think not. They are slowly transforming the way that we think about digital storytelling – and the physical nature of books themselves.

In his talk at Stony Brook in 2015, Matt Hayler offered a concise and compelling introduction to his research into the materiality of books, both analogue and digital, and how this changes our overall reading experience.

He placed emphasis on the physical properties of books – the pages, typography, binding, and cover – and how these create meaning, rather than just the words themselves. 

Everything down to the translucency of the paper can be a “material metaphor”, but how does this change in digital forms of storytelling? 

Hayler cites clicking, scrolling, and multimedia extensions as elements which do not match our paper book experience. Yet one startlingly clear example of how digital books change our reading experience is hyperlinks; the mere sight of a word underlined and coloured blue holds brand new connotations in the post-digital age. Steven Johnson called them “the first significant form of punctuation to emerge in centuries.”

In association with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Hayler and researchers at the University of Birmingham created a Theatre Book, which is inscribed with key lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It combines analogue elements such as pop-up tableaus and etched wooden covers with digital elements, such as pre-recorded audio and micro-switch systems that change the scenes.

As Hayler explains, “It is in its weaving together of both forms, and at this time, that the meaning of each is heightened – the Theatre Book offers an antidote to fear in the face of the new and a commitment to showing the already-present meaning-making potentials of existing forms.”

During a time when many are still sceptical about the usefulness of e-books and digital storytelling, Matt Hayler and many other scholars of contemporary literature are demonstrating that digital technology is providing us with new grammar and ways of creating meaning, not just in the words we write but the objects onto which they are presented, and the objects that we use to create them.

You can view his talk at Stony Brook below, or visit his blog, here. 


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