Replay: Kindle my heart; or, Is it really a book if it’s never on paper?
That’s what the e-book readers have me thinking about these days.
Some people have told me I should, when Entertaining Welsey Shaw is finally finished and ready for publication, skip the physical book route all together and go straight to bits. There are obvious advantages: production cost is lower, distribution is easier. Plus it’s the wave of the future, and who doesn’t want to catch the wave?
But…is it really a book?
I don’t have a Kindle, a Nook or an iPad. I didn’t get hip to the iPod until about five years after everyone else. (The week I proudly got my first iPod, I overheard two interns at the TV station where I worked saying, “The iPod is no longer hip. They’re practically giving them away.”) And I’ve never really wanted a Nook or Kindle. (The iPad may be another story, but not for book reading so much.) To me, a book is paper, pages, artwork, a cover, binding, and the satisfying, heavy “thunk” it makes when you shut it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Luddite, and I can think of plenty of uses for an e-book reader. But cozying up to it on the sofa and reading till two in the morning isn’t one of them. On vacation they’d be great for containing guidebooks and information (train and plane schedules, museum material, etc.) They’re useful for note-taking and sharing, and while exploring some photos of them online I discovered that at least the Nook plays chess, which just may be the strongest incentive yet I’ve had to desire one. (I miss my old Toshiba PDA, if only because it played chess.)
But, as with sushi and Christmas presents, part of the experience of a book, to me, lies in the presentation. I bought the edition of Walden that I did, for example, because it was leather-bound, with a sewn-in ribbon bookmark, was set in the typeface of the original edition, and contained the same illustrative woodcuts. One of my all-time favorite books, Anthony Saidy’s The World of Chess (it is a hardback coffee table book, despite Amazon claiming it’s a paperback), is a favorite in large part because of the beautiful job the publisher did in its production: it’s filled with color photos and paintings of chess sets, chess scenes and chess players, the book has gorgeous end papers, a sewn-binding, cloth (true cloth) covers in red with shiny gold inset lettering, and very artistic use of typefaces. Every chapter ends at the end of a right-side page, at the very end of a line. There is no empty “white-space” anywhere. The book is assembled like a perfect jigsaw puzzle. It deserves a place in the Smithsonian.
The beauty of all this, which is hard to describe in print, cannot be duplicated by any setup on an e-book reader. Even an iPad, while it could do it more justice, wouldn’t be nearly as good. I have quite a number of books that way—works of art in themselves. Ink and paper triumph over bits.
Imagine The Joy of Sex on an e-reader. (Maybe someday when they can play video, okay!) How about War and Peace? My parents had a library of basic literary classics such as David Copperfield, War and Peace, Moby Dick and The Red and the Black, lacking the sewn-in silk ribbons but featuring beautiful paper and reproductions of color paintings of key scenes. The books made that beautiful creak when you opened them slowly. They smelled important. Somehow you felt like you were in touch with the author when you read them even though you knew, objectively, they were printed by some press in Ohio, because it told you so on the title page really small at the bottom. No matter—I was closer to Stendhal than I could possibly be reading his words on a little gray glowing screen.
I mentioned War and Peace for another reason also. I find it hard to concentrate on really long texts, and I don’t think my reading comprehension is as good for some reason when I read off a screen. I know when I have a really complicated item to read, even if it’s a news story or instruction manual, I print it for better comprehension and ease of reading. It takes longer to get through articles on a screen. Distractions happen more easily. I can’t imagine the great classics of literature, or even a thick summer potboiler, on a little digital device at the beach.
Interestingly, I don’t seem to be alone here. A recent study finds the same thing among college students. It remains to be seen if adopting e-readers in the college curriculum will effect comprehension and, ultimately, test grades and the quality of education itself.
Having said all that, I would be happy to see Entertaining Welsey Shaw in electronic form for download. How you may want to read my novel is your business, even if I want to see it sitting on my shelf, its spine facing me, a lovely leather bookmark in its pages. And if ebooks mean more sales and hence more of an incentive for publishers to try new authors, and readers to sample new authors, then the advance is a good thing. Plus the fact that they hold hundreds or even thousands of books means people always have access to your words everywhere they take their reader. And many of my objections to electronic devices will no doubt be met with the iPad and future gizmos that improve on the resolution and image quality of screens. Who knows, someone may even come up with an app that makes that satisfying “thunk” when you finish an electronic book.