Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A Thing I Wish I Thought About Less


Mostly I wish I didn't think about them so much because I find the subject boring. But I read a lot of agent and publisher blogs, and if they don't all mention e-books at least once a day, then it means they didn't post.

I have a lot of not-quite-legitimate reasons to dislike the very idea of e-books. They mainly stem from my reluctance to give up the tradition of books that are, like, real. I like to bring them home. I like to put them on my shelf. I like to rearrange them. I like to look at them. They're integral to my idea of interior decorating. I don't know why people want their books to take up less space. If you have enough you can just build furniture out of them, so I don't see a problem. I also happen to think that reading a book with footnotes on an e-reader would be torture, and call me crazy, but I want to have one thing in my life, just one thing, that doesn't need to be plugged in.

My deeper problem with e-books, one that do I think is legitimate and overlooked, is design. I first thought about this seriously when I started using Google Reader. Since it basically transfers the text of blog posts into a generic format and lets you read lots of different blogs in the same place, I realized that half the time I didn't know which blog I was reading because I had no visual cues. (Sadly, a lot of agents do not have distinct writing voices.) I started pondering what a difference there is between reading the same text in two different formats. For example:

Blog as viewed through Google Reader.

Blog as created by blogger.

As far as I can tell, e-books are to print books what Google Reader is to individually-designed websites. There's something lacking in the Google Reader version. It's not a perfect analogy because for blogs, I'm willing to make the sacrifice. They're kind of like newspapers. They look the same every time, and I already know what the quality of the content is going to be. It's never earth-shattering. I'm already acquainted with it, and it doesn't need to set up an atmosphere or communicate to me what it is before I read it.

But books are different. Because every book is different. There are new books, there are old books. Hardcovers, mass market paperbacks, and trade paperbacks. There are Norton Critical Editions that are heavy with slippery pages, which mean you are reading Literature. There are fat genre novels with rough paper, which means it cost $6.99 and spent three weeks on the best seller list. There are friendly, compact, 4x7 books, and there are nice, spacious 6x9 books. There are books with covers that are shiny with texture, books with dust jackets, quality paperbacks with French flaps.

All of this tells you what kind of book you're picking up, and then on the inside, the font and the spacing and the margins and the clarity of the type are telling you things about what kind of text you're reading. These things influence your experience. There's a physical difference between reading a Penguin Classic and a Harlequin Romance that registers in the reader's brain, which will disappear when the print texts are distributed electronically. This isn't to say anyone is going to confuse The Awakening with The Forbidden Bride (although actually there are probably similarities), or that there is necessarily a problem with being unable to visually discriminate for or against whatever kinds of books you do or don't like to read. What goes missing are the trappings of the sort of book you read, whatever it is. And I like the trappings.

I think books that aren't oversized, four-color, glossy-paged studies of Flemish tapestry (or whatever book of your choice would require fancy illustrations) are overlooked as pieces of art, except by those who design them. You would think that as a writer I would put all of the emphasis on the words, but my experience has always been that presentation is rather important. Good books usually have type that looks like a fascimile of a fascimile of the first edition. Sometimes they have a painting on the cover that you may run into out in the world some day and get to say to yourself, hey, what is Jane Eyre doing in the National Gallery of Scotland? And sometimes the lines are very close together because it's so full of colorful detail that there just isn't enough space on the page to fit it all in. Not to bring up Dorothy Dunnett again or anything, but when I think of the pages of the editions I read, I imagine the text sparkling at the places where the extenders of the letters are practically touching from line to line, it's that crammed full of stuff. Until I can plug books into my brain and absorb them instantly, I'd like to preserve these little benefits that I get from the act of reading. Each book is an individual.

The state of e-books is basically a big mess right now, and I think that it'll be some time before questions of design are addressed. At the moment, they can't even decide what an e-book should cost, or what format it should be in, or what you should use to read it with. There aren't really any standards. Recently, Amazon suspended selling new print copies of books published by Macmillan, because of a struggle over the pricing of electronic copies. It is ridiculous, the nonsense that has been going on over this stuff in the past few years, and the new iPad has basically terrified everyone. I would not use an e-reader right now if someone handed it to me for free, just because of all the issues that are still being sorted out. But even once they are, unless they find a way to make reading an electronic book an exact replica of reading a print book, I don't see myself ever choosing the one over the other. Which is why I am so very tired of everyone writing about them all the time. Unfortunately this now includes me.

One thing I will say in favor of e-books is that if they ever make one that runs on solar power, the hypothetical scenario of having to choose one book to bring to a desert island would disappear, and we could all stop lying about picking the complete works of Shakespeare.


Matthew said...

Bravo. I share you exact thoughts on why I much prefer real books to digital books. Then again, you're preaching to the choir with me as I still buy CDs on a regular basis for many of the same reasons. Obviously, for me, it's the streamlined design without any sense of individuality that annoys me about e-books, but also I find something very rewarding about TURNING a page. It's a very tactile sense of progress that just isn't the same when clicking a link. And as technology makes me attention span shorter and shorter, I need to actually turn pages to keep me going.

Simon said...

I still buy CDs as well. Someone worked hard on that art! Also I just like having the object. It feels more real than a computer file.

And I agree, turning pages is a serious advantage. I like to be able to feel exactly what kind of progress I've made.