A microbrewery for book-lovers

Electronic Book Lovers vs. The Page-Sniffers

Laurence fondles the leather-effect binding of his complete works of Shakespeare, ‘a part of our heritage’, simultaneously using the volumes to display his refinement and his guest’s lack of taste. If the book goes digital, perhaps it makes this act of snobbery performed in Mike Leigh’s ‘Abigail’s Party’ less likely.

A couple of new technical advances have made the newspapers recently. Amazon can turn your i-Phone into an e-book  for free with their Kindle software. 300,000 books are available. A swipe of your finger re-enacts the turning of paper pages digitally. The Nintendo DS also now has a ‘game’ that allows you to read hundreds of classic novels, while the speakers emit the crackle of a mimetic fireplace. The irony is that this sound-effect will actually consume energy created by the burning of coal many miles away. Sound, but no heat. Do paperbacks store more CO2 than online books constantly consume – backed up in several locations at once and always open? But the wastefulness of paper books wasn’t the only assumption in the print and radio discussions prompted by these announcements.

Panels, such as on Radio 4’s Open Book, could have explored the properties of these inventions logically; their benefits and defecits compared to paper books. Instead we witness a sort of ‘conversation re-enactment society’, general assumptions uncritically repeated in programmes dominated by nostalgia. It occurs to me that what is lacking in these commentaries is a precise analysis of the properties of each kind of reading platform.

The most obvious misconception is that paperback books such as Penguins perform an archival role. In fact they strip out many parts of the book-machine to make them competitive in price. This was the Penguin revolution; quality texts at an affordable price. An archival book has hard covers, lifting the pages above the acidic shelf. The paper is acid free. The pages are folded and stitched. There are endpapers that act like a doormat for the fingers. Bands support the book block itself. The spine may be arched to support a thicker book as it hangs above the shelf. The edges may even be gilded with stainless gold leaf. All these processes are removed in the paperback. But this is not a complaint. One might even argue that most paperbacks last too long. Will a Dan Brown be read and re-read? Will it have notes scribbled in the margin? Possibly by conspiracy theorists, but they probably use pile upon pile of notebooks instead.  Many American journals and academic books continue to make use of the more enduring features; we should not imagine that a paperback and an academic tome are the same machine because they both use paper. They don’t even use the same paper.

In academic research the electronic book brings many advantages, especially in note-taking, cutting and pasting, live-searches of the text better than any index. Hyperlinks to other texts and information… However, this brings to light other possibilities routinely overlooked in the media. Our regard for texts as concrete and unchangable and our definitions of authorship are shaped by the fact that a book is printed and then that is that. If another edition is made, minor changes occur, but with the text remaining live, what stops the reader intervening? Why shouldn’t I re-write one of my own books one morning, even after publication? A physical restraint has become a matter of etiquette. Is this the constant positive refinement of the evolutionary process or the constant revisionism of the Totalitarian view of History? All history adopts the needs of the Party. But I suppose for a panel talking for twenty minutes about the joy of sniffing pages, the territory of the ‘exploded book’ would have caused seizures.

The problem with the e-book is that it is not going far enough. It does not threaten the book, be it the archival machine, the disposable paperback or something inbetween. Obsolescence merely frees these formats up for new purposes. This is also the formative time for the form of the e-book, but it is nostalgia for the paper reading experience that is threatening to make e-reading inadequate. Manufacturers should stop trying to make e-readers look like books, with corny page-turning animations. If they are convenient we will use them. But book design is a phenomenological tradition that takes careful evaluation. Traditionally the central margin of the left page is set and then the top, outside, and foot margins increase in size as you go round by 20%. The opposite is the case for the facing page. This double spread has been around since Medieval times and forms part of the reading experience. It gives room for your thumbs. Yet electronic readers are often single column affairs. What does this imply? Design is not just a matter of paper vs. screen glare.

The reality is that the possibilities for publishing, text composition, and authorship are so radically different that we can’t even see them. We’re even doing some of them already without realising.  This period is a massive opportunity for small presses. Without the confusion of the paperback as primary text-delivery platform, people are grasping that there is a particular place for a well made paper book with original content; they are actually seeing what a book is for the first time. This is the opposite of nostalgia, it is the grasping of the relevant place for a technology in our time. In the same vein we should jettison the nostalgia for paperbacks and ask ourselves which features do we not want to lose in the next generation of electronic reading technology, making it a superior format to the paperback for the quick read. If we continue to encourage the crude approximations of page turning and dog-earing instead of platforms equipped for a transfigured compositional and reading industry, we are losing the essence of traditional book technology. It is like saying you will buy a car, but only if it looks like a horse and is limited to four miles an hour. And it’s not like we shot all the horses.

Laurence returns the complete works of Shakespeare to the shelf saying, ‘Of course, not the kind of thing you can actually read…’ I suspect he is the intended audience for the Nintendo DS Classics Library. It probably won’t be long before someone is showing me theirs and demonstrating how it re-creates the sound of an actual log-fire. Or is it the gentle crackle of a book-burning?


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