Sunday, January 23, 2011

E-books and the classics

One of the odd convergences of technology and content around e-books is the availability of many classic authors as free texts through Project Gutenberg, and even the commercial e-publishers themselves. Being free and easy to download, there’s a certain attraction to these works over contemporary (paid) titles.
Will this lead readers back to the pre-modern and early modern classics in the most high-tech context?
To be sure, the typography and text flow of Gutenburg texts leaves a lot to be desired. But then, the conventions of modern pages, such as spacing and the punctuation of speech, are also forms that developed over a considerable period, and were once much looser.
But, more importantly, what happens when readers rediscover writers like Dickens, Wilkie Collins, H.G. Wells, Conrad or Robert Louis Stevenson, in a perfectly cheap and accessible form? Stevenson, for example, in the short stories collected in New Arabian Nights, creates deft literary adventure stories. There’s no sense with Stevenson that adventure and entertainment are at odds with literary sensibility, or that narrative momentum is incompatible with compelling characterisation. Are these the stories the e-book could bring us back to, or invigorate for the future?