The Written Word: From Tangible to Digital and Back Again I Oxford Open Learning


    The Written Word: From Tangible to Digital and Back Again

    Recent years have seen the sorts of shifts in life and lifestyle which science fiction writers of the past would have been simultaneously happy to have predicted and potentially surprised to see come to fruition. In 1930, Bob Brown wrote ‘The Readies’, predicting the production of a portable reading machine, within which abbreviated text would replace the long form writing of the day and more recently, in 1995, Neal Stephenson wrote about ebooks in his novel ‘The Diamond Age’, well before the release and sale of the Sony Libre in 2004 and the renowned Kindle in November 2007.

    The Written Word vs Technology

    The increasing interest in gadgets, apps and services able to take the reality of life out of the physical and into the online realm has soared in the past decade. The format of the written word is a classic example and even barometer of this cultural shift. From book to e-reader to app., writing has mutated and iterated, reducing in size until entire libraries can be stored on a tiny SD card and accessed at a swipe on the mobile phone most people carry with them, umbilically linked.

    However, the wind and sway of culture is an intemperate beast. At one moment in 2018 the epitaphs and In Memoriam speeches for the independent book sellers, newspapers and publishers were being readied. The next, the statistics were showing a slump in ebook sales and growth for the tangible tome. Observer columnist, Joshua Fruhlinger, called it “one of the greatest ironies in the history of literal literary irony, it seems that the death of the bookstore is exactly what’s bringing it back.”

    The war is constantly being waged over what makes reading intrinsically enjoyable, and the shifting proponents of convenience, artistry, tactile and/or visual stimulation, and portability may at one moment meet an individual’s needs one way and then the next sway another.

    Further Challenges Ahead

    Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic there is a new concern. Pressing questions surround whether it will herald a new phase in this digital war, as those on the ground will change their views to consider issues of ‘hygiene’ and the concept of removal of the ‘dirty’ physical from as much of their lives as possible. Will the hard copy book swing out of favour again as a potential harbinger of germs, viruses, and other unmentionable nastiness, and will the eminently more wipe-clean ebook or ‘phone app take up the mantle again?

    The best place to look for answers is not necessarily in the statistics of the publishing houses, the articles in Times Literary Supplement or the lists of the New York Best Sellers. Rather, it is in the books themselves, as they become written and published in the midst of the social and cultural upheaval that follows such a global catastrophe. Perhaps a revolutionary new product will emerge. For now, though, there only one certainty: that the written word will continue to delight in all three formats simply because there is no way (yet) to meet all our intellectual and sensory needs simultaneously. The book/e-reader/app is dead. Long live the book/e-reader/app.



    The Readies:

    The Diamond Age (wiki):

    Ebook Sales Decline article (Observer):


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