Why Do We Call Ebooks, Ebooks?

There’s this great article by Mandy Brown over at aworkinglibrary, asking a worthy question: why are ebooks called ebooks, considering that previous iterations of the ‘book’ were called by distinctively different names? Scrolls were different from Codexes, Codexes were different from Books, and now … why ebook? Why not something vastly different, considering that ebooks have nothing in common with books?

We are now ushering in a new age of books which exist without any physical presence at all, which can be transmitted across oceans in moments, in which annotations and criticisms can be shared in ways no one of the seventeenth century could ever have imagined. (Indeed, ways we of the twenty-first century are only beginning to understand.) And yet we still stubbornly refer to them as “books,” tucking but a sly vowel up front (“ebook”), as if we’re afraid to really admit how much has changed. This naming convention is no less absurd than if the codex was called a “folded scroll” or the scroll a “soft, thin, rolled tablet.” Dramatic changes in form require equally dramatic changes in terms.

Hate to quaffle over an already excellent post, but I wonder if taxonomy changes really reflect our society’s acceptance of a medium. Would it matter if we use different naming conventions? And it’s an interesting question to ask, in light of the current shift to digital lit. Because if Mandy’s right, then the amount of names applied to digital fiction (blook, wovel, webfic, blogfic, ebook, etc) simply mirrors the fragmented and disorganized medium we have at hand.

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Category: Publishing
  • http://www.gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    I keep using the term “emergent artform” when I talk about online fiction, but I think it’s true. We don’t know the potential yet for online literature, which can incorporate music, video, links to other sites, pictures and scaffolding stories. Who knows what else lies in store?

    But because of that emergent, nascent quality, it means that the multiple labels being applied are our culture’s attempt to name this new creature. And none of the names are perfect, yet, because otherwise we’d have picked one by now. It’s part of the process, as we evolve and change into something new, that’s more than traditional books.

  • http://www.gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    (If my other comment actually gets posted, you can delete this, as I’m repeating in case I screwed up ;) )

    I’ve said before that online fiction is an emergent art form, with untapped potential. Pictures, links, video and music can be incorporated to create a new and different experience from a traditional book.

    The plethora of new names speaks to that emergent, nascent quality. We don’t know what to call this new creature, as it emerges from its chrysalis. We keep inventing new names until something perfect sticks.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com Gavin

    My link was written wrong, here I’ve fixed it. :)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James


    It did get posted, didn’t it? But I’ll leave it up because it seems you’ve rewritten the 2nd comment (unless you don’t like that, in which case just email me and tell me which comment you want to delete …)

    You know, it’s funny, thinking about names. Because when a name sticks, that could only mean that the vast majority of people are using that name, which in turn implies that a huge portion of the population are now familiar with said idea/medium/object. I’ll be sure to blog about that when that happens, for sure. ;-)

  • http://srsuleski.com/ srsuleski

    The next question is “What DO we call them?” I looked “codex” up because I was, shamefully, unfamiliar with the word. According to Wiki (God) it’s Latin for “block of wood.” Which leads me to wonder, what’s Latin for “electronically published story”? ;)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Electronus Constructus Novelus!

    Okay bad joke.