In 1884, “A. Square” (a pseudonym of Edwin A. Abbott) published Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, a treatise on Victorian culture through the metaphor of Euclidean geometry. The narrator, A Square, encounters a sphere that has intruded in his own two-dimensional flatland and marvels at the possibilities of higher dimensions. This work of fiction resonates with debates about the tensions between page and screen. The page readily has three dimensions including its all-important depth which makes up an important temporal understanding of how long it is likely it will take to read the book. The screen as a physical object again has three dimensions, but the area most are interested in, is a project in two-dimensions.
Ted Nelson, who did much to facilitate the personal computer revolution in his screed Computer Lib/Dream Machines, suggests that computing is stuck in what he calls the “paperdigm,” an attempt to reproduce features of the page (e.g. “web page,” “scroll,” “desktop,” “document,” “file” and the many other metaphors). Although it is natural to seek continuity between media, the materiality of both print and computers are different. As such, the way in which dimensions can be projected or marked in either media should be carefully considered.
One of the ways in which developers of e-books have attempted to replicate the three-dimensional appearance of the book is through use of skeuomorphism, which in the computing sense, most commonly refers to replicating features of physical media. Most famously, Apple’s decision to remove the skeuomorphic properties of its iBooks App marked a discussion about the ways in which we view the third dimension of books. This arguably reflects the deep-seated nostalgia that characterised the backlash against the concept of a digital book as a form that took away the “bookish” qualities of a book, including the ability to turn pages. Skeuomorphism simulated these conditions in order to reconcile the reader’s view of the e-book as a book through its pseudo-three dimensional “book” design. With iBooks, the depth of a book was represented skeuomorphically not as a measurement of book length but rather as an aesthetic feature.
It is not just digital interface designers who are playing around with the concept of three-dimensional reading. Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea has been marketed as the first book to feature a 3D cover and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes is carefully carved out to reveal words from later confront the reader with the fact that they are exploring a three-dimensional object. With the rise of digital media, the book appears to be paying closer towards its own materiality.
Of course the field of digital literature experiments with the ways in which the screen and other media, but the question remains, is it possible to move our conception of e-books out of the two-dimensional “paperdigm” and closer to the three-dimensional manifestation of the book?