Thursday, 3 June 2010

Future shock

Verlyn Klinkenborg is perhaps the greatest stylist writing today, a man whose prose is so beautiful as to be simply astonishing. Last November I quoted his little prose poem on autumn, words so evocative that you can smell the smoky tang on the air, feel the damp chill as the sun sets early. It’s one of my favourite passages in the English language.

On other seasons, and the countryside, and our lives as part of one grand picture, he has no equal. But his thoughts on e-readers I found a little disappointing. These are just the sentiments that everybody else expresses:
“I have been reading a lot on my iPad recently, and I have some complaints — not about the iPad but about the state of digital reading generally. Reading is a subtle thing, and its subtleties are artifacts of a venerable medium: words printed in ink on paper. Glass and pixels aren’t the same.”
So many people are getting defensive about e-readers. It’s like a child screeching, "But I don't LIKE the new thing. I want the OLD thing." But nobody has said ebooks are here to do away with print books. They're an extra thing, a new variation, not a replacement. They surely will replace some books - disposable thrillers, for example, where all you're buying is the story. But for those who want a beautiful print edition of a fine book, you'll still be able to get those. No need to fret yet.

Ebooks will diverge from print books. They may complement the print edition. A book about great battles of the world could have interactive maps of the battlefield, for example. Clearly in many cases of nonfiction, the ebooks will be better.

Every reactionary opinion focuses only on how ebooks fail to do what print books do. But what about the things they do that traditional books don't? The ways they are better? Not crowding you out of house and home, for example! Any time a new technology comes along, it will do things differently from the technology that went before. That doesn't make it bad. Just different.

If you look at literary forums about e-readers, most comments focus on the negative. "Oh, but I like the fusty old smell of my books." "You can't give e-books as gifts." "What about reading in the bath/pool?" (Who the hell does?) "If I lose my e-reader I'm going to lose my entire library." (No you're not.) "I can't make notes in them." (Who said?) "But they just aren't as nice to fondle as my books... it's the end of the world... the barbarians are at the gates, wail, gnash."

Mr Klinkenborg is far better informed than that. But in his New York Times article he does express concern about not being able to lend ebooks, not being able to have libraries, and so on. To those who feel this way I would say, "Fer Chrissakes, the iBookstore has only been going a couple months! Give it a freakin' chance!" If people want to lend ebooks, that'll come. An online library where you get the book for a month? Sure, if enough people want it, you’ll get it. No need to look for things to gripe about.

And what about the good things that will come as a result of epublishing? More books will see the light of day, because publishers no longer need to be convinced that 1000 people will buy it in Chicago, 1500 in New York and so on. As long as an ebook justifies the cost of writing and illustration (largely undertaken at the authors' risk even now) it can be published. Online it will find its readers wherever they may be. Think of how often a book has failed because of the print medium. Good books been sent in the wrong quantities to the wrong places, then remaindered and pulped - not because there weren't readers out there for them, but because the print distribution system didn't get the book to the right places.

And then there's self-publishing. Peter Richardson on Cloud 109 has been discussing the problems of getting new ideas past the marketing people. Jon Higham’s Elly books have now appeared in the App Store and are doing very well. We hope to have Mirabilis in the App Store soon. This is a glorious dawn for authors. It might even turn out to be rather good for publishers too - at least those, like Nosy Crow, that are willing and able to evolve.

As for the reading experience on iPad... Well, comics and magazines are just better, no question. As for books, I am of that generation that loves the feel and aroma of books. My senses quicken as I enter a secondhand bookstore. But we're going to die out. No use crying about it, it's the USP of the human race: forever reshaping our relationship with the world around us. Future generations will find other things to love. It won't mean they're soulless or can't appreciate the beauty of a book, but they'll find that beauty in other ways. Heaven knows, they might even start to pay a little more attention to the text.

Mr Klinkenborg writes, as I say, beautifully. His insights have often brought my brain to a full stop as I rearrange my thinking in response. But comments like this on ebooks and e-readers are all too common among book lovers. They depress me because they seem to be drawing up lines for a war we don’t have to fight. There are few enough folks who read books in the world today. The barbarians aren't at the gates, they're plonked in front of network TV and texting their friends while listening to a greatest hits playlist at the same time. So let’s not have a schism between the print book cultists and the worshippers at the iShrine. Let's just support books in all of their forms.

"Due attention to the inside of books, and due contempt for the outside, is the proper relation between a man of sense and his library."
- Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield


  1. A really fascinating reflection Dave, as I was reading this I did cast my mind back some 25 years ago to the arrival of the CD.

    In 1986 if you went into the HMV store in Oxford Street, Vinyl dominated, it sprawled elegantly throughout the whole store. CDs were allocated a small section on the ground floor. There was a very similar kind of snobbery applied to the new kid on the block.

    Ten years later the geography of HMV in Oxford Street had reversed. CDs were the default format and if you looked very hard you might possibly find a few examples of vinyl.

    People still loved their vinyl, kept the albums and said how much warmer the sound was, how much more pleasurable the look of the albums were but how they just tended to listen to CDs because they were ultimately more convenient.

    Now think of embarking on a long train journey, you've got the choice of an IPad (take a leap of imagination and think of something which will ultimately be even more flexible)

    ... or you can take a book.

    The book is bulky and you'll have to lug it around with you for the rest of the day.

    The IPad on the other hand as well as being headed in the direction of uber convenient portability, is easy to read, will allow you to check all your emails, link to the internet, download a new book (or graphic novel),plus a host of new opportunities for accessing ways to keep you occupied and stimulated on an otherwise tedious journey.

    The future is that for all of us the immediacy and functionality of the IPad and it's successors means that publishing has changed irrevocably.

    And it's changed for the better!

    As in more choice, more opportunity for creators, more opportunity for visionary publishers and more choice for readers.

    Now that's got to be better!!!

    P.S. Many thanks Dave for the Cloud 109 plug - it does look so nice on that IPad as does that wonderful reverse vertigo Mirabilis panel and ... erm ... have you now got a hold of the object of desire???

  2. You're so right, Peter. Occasionally I put on a vinyl record and there's no question, the sound is better. But I can shove on a stack of CDs and buckle down to a few hours' work, whereas with vinyl I'd be jumping up every 20 minutes. Convenience always wins out.

  3. I am on the fence about the whole thing. You are of course right about convenience winning out - but it is always at a price.

    As a kid I remember going to the library and slowly working my way down my favourite shelves, looking for spines I didn't recognize with intriguing covers. There was a joy in simply being among books, browsing, making a discovery.

    I see books eventually going the way of music, becoming more and more digital until shopping is all done online, by reading excerpts and looking at cover images. I am sure the newer generations will have no issue at all with this - these are consumers who are losing the sense of things like a music "album", as songs become individual items to download and shuffle. (I can mourn the passing of the album as a creative package, but they won't miss it at all.) And don't get me wrong, I embrace a world where you don't have to bribe your friends to help you move all your incredibly heavy boxes of books and CDs, or have to dedicate most of the windowless walls in the house to bookshelves.

    But at the same time, there is something about being among books for me that I find comforting and inspiring, and I don't want that to go away. I know that people who truly love books in their present form will probably always be able to have them. But I worry that the aspects of tangible books that will be lost over time are the subtle ones. Beautiful typesetting and binding will go the way of the concept album. Some books will only exist digitally. And everything will be dependent on battery power.

    But that day is a long way off. And I love that publishing books (like music) will be placed in the hands of the people who created them. That for me is unarguably a better way of doing things, whatever the cost. The other thing I look forward to (aside from the convenience, and the lovely displays on things like the iPad) is discovering unexpected benefits of new technology. Like having your entire library stored somewhere and having it choose something for you to read - maybe it will be a whole new way of discovering books, the way music shuffle now rekindles parts of music collections that people have forgotten about.

    I will always be one of those people who has books, I love them too much. But I say bring on all the benefits of the digital medium.