Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Book is a Survivor

One of my favorite classes in my masters’ studies was a course called Textual Culture. Our professor, Paul Menzer, was constantly stretching the ways we thought about text and the technologies used to store and use that text, be they seemingly simple technologies (paper and pens) or the mysteries of microchips. A lot of us were pretty scornful of reading on screens, and he would bring up other times in which people have resisted technological changes. Think of people’s disdain for horseless carriages. A lot of the arguments being made at that time, (the beauty, the elegance, the emotional significance, just liking horses) are similar to the ones being made today. A lot of people said, “I will never ride in one of those horseless carriages.” And they never did. And then they died. His point was that just because some people have an emotional aversion to change, that is not enough to keep that change from happening. However, the analogy never sat quite right with me. Although horses and their owners do die, the books themselves can live much longer than their users. It is true that we are in a large moment of cultural change, and it is true that the role of books and paper in this world will not remain the same as it was in my childhood, but I think there are many reasons why the physical, paper, “low-tech” book has benefits which its digital counterparts cannot replicate, and one of them is longevity.

While moving this past summer the box I was least happy about carting around was the box of dead electronics. The old ipods which can no longer sync with today’s apps, the GPS which doesn’t turn on anymore, the computers we used three years ago, eight years ago, 10 years ago, all shuttered into a closet or something no longer usable for even a fraction of their intended purposes. None of these are more than 12 years old, and all of them are useless or next to useless. People seem to think that computers, phones, and e-reader tablets will threaten the codex, but they seem like flimsy and finicky replacements for a technology which has stayed essentially constant as it shaped the world for well over a thousand years. People are looking at books as if they will be as replaceable as the changes in the dissemination of audio; changing from lps to eight tracks to cassette to cds to digital downloads in less than half a century.

A different day in that same Textual Culture class, Menzer was talking about early modern printing and so he bought in some books from the college collection. Wearing white gloves he carefully turned the pages, and showed us some of the leaves before handing the book to the closest student to pass around. The student balked, not having gloves, and Menzer just smiled, saying that that book was better made than most books today; the strong, beautiful pages were made of rags, that it was in nearly pristine condition despite being in use for over four hundred years. The gloves were just for show.

Another concern with the rise of ebooks is the lack of substance of what is bought and sold. Rather than buying or selling an object, ebooks function as a sale of a non-object. There is no thing being sold, merely the information. The text without a body. Of course, in some ways this is the appeal of ebooks. No need to burden the book shelves. No need to carry multiple volumes with you while you travel-- your virtual library is with you wherever you need it. But because books are now no longer an object they are not a good that can be sold by anyone other than the publisher or those privileged sources, the companies buying rights to the ebooks. If you loved a book you cannot lend it to a friend (Kindle has a very complicated borrowing policy which I have never heard of anyone using), and if you didn’t love the book, it is still yours forever. You can’t pass it on to a charity shop or leave it in a little free library. Started using a pretty basic Kindle when I lived in western Europe for three years, and I had no access to English libraries. Instead of purchasing the slow-shipping paper books for a book club I was a part of, I would sometimes just buy the ebook. It was however a very strange thing if someone wanted to borrow the book I would need to give up my whole kindle library, and, (since a kindle is very much intended as a private device) there was something very strange about passing off the record of everything
I’d been recently reading to an acquaintance. Passing around a book in a classroom is infinitely preferable to passing around one’s phone. In addition to limiting the reader to the devices they themselves own, ebooks have a certain amount of vulnerability of price. Reading at the beach or in your bathtub is a tricky thing with your $700 iphone-- but a paperback you can just leave on your towel when you go into the water for a swim. If you drop a book into the tub, sometimes the books are well enough made that if you dry it quickly it’s still usable, but if not, you are probably not going to pay more than $20 replacing it. You can leave books in the car without worrying about theft. There are obviously exceptions for rare or collectable books, but for the most part, having one object do one job means that the object can be very good at that job.

Those tear-stains are so good!
The creativity available in book formatting, in their style and variability, is also a tragic loss of ebooks. In an ebook, the text is assembled in an infinite scroll, artificially broken into pages based on each reader’s preferences. You can change where the page breaks are by changing the font or the size of the words. In some ways this is wonderful. It has allowed people with limited eyesight to read books in type as large as they need. But there is a great deal to be lost in such a transition as well. The editors and designers whose job it is to make books beautiful and functional are stripped of their domain. Harry Potter seems impossible out of Adobe Garamond type, yet buy the ebook, and your only options are the three fonts kindle allows, and none of the delightful switches in fonts for letters or pronouncements or even this gem of Hagrid’s tearstained letter. The proportions of the book are also set by the size of the e-reader making picture books or poetry a mess. When it was published in 2012, Chris Ware’s mammoth graphic novel creation seemed to both celebrate the paper book and break out of its confines: The book is sold as a cardboard box full of little booklets of various shapes and sizes all telling stories related to architecture. Odd in that it is not quite a paper book, (made up of too many small pieces, and of course the box) but certainly resisting the possibility of reading on a screen. Picture books are also typically not published for ereader, because they are not designed for a single tablet but a codex, where the turn of the page adds to the drama of the book. The versatility options in a screen based reading experience actually limits the possibilities of design, as everything must flow in a continuous stream of text.

And while I have saved the personal attachment to books as objects for last (it being the most mutable of these defenses for the book as an object) it is also significant. While the distinctives put on books by the publisher are a significant loss to the book as it loses its bodily form, the distinctives and personal details added by the owners and users of the books are even more significant. An autographed copy, a first edition, a scribbled note in on the flyleaf, these all add value to the book for an individual reader, but am also very fond of books with marginalia from unknown sources. This fall I bought all used copies for my class on the 19th century novel. Some inherited marginalia was appalling-- whoever the scribbly first owner of my Balsac was, they clearly did not understand or finish reading Pere Goriot, but the inscriber of my Bleak House? I felt as though I had the half-blood prince guiding my reading, pointing out themes, exclaiming in neat, witty side comments, and I felt this loving kinship with the unknown reader who sold her (his?) book back to the great sea of textbooks. I love rereading books I marked or marked by my friends, or by myself when I was young, and find a strange representation of my progress, being shaped, learning, ingesting the written word. The ways of doing this via ebooks are so clumsy and so technical that the warmth, the immediacy, the sensory closeness is lost.

Books can also be extremely sensual. One autumn morning when we had gotten in the fall art books at the bookstore it was my job to fix up the art book display table. Now, this table was the centerpiece of the store, right underneath a row of skylights, and the frontlist artbooks in the autumn are the publishers gems of the year. In hopes of surging profits with the holiday wave of shopping, and these huge glossy books are all sold wrapped in clingwrap to keep them from damage. However, in order to sell them, it is necessary unwrap one of each book to have it on display. Coursebook rush had just finished and my own ears were ringing with the hundred times I had told students that books “cannot be returned as a new book without the plastic wrap intact,” as I found myself with a dozen books (each costing more money than I would make working that afternoon) ripping them out of their clinging plastic. As I stood in the morning sunlight holding each one, one at a time in my arms, peeling them out of their sheer dressings, seeing the glossy pages fall open to Japanese botanical prints, or a history of fashion full of texture and color, a book on Rolling Stone magazine its cover slightly embossed, I was both nervous and excited by the gentleness and strength required by these volumes. But books are not just a pleasure to the eye and the touch!
The smell of old libraries is so appealing that luxury candles are sold in the scent of books or libraries. David A. Carter has a pop-up book focused on the sounds of paper as it flips or thuds or crunches. Phones have got to become pretty sexy if they are going to compete with books in the long run.

So what does come next for books? If ebooks are not enough to eclipse paper books what will the buffet of technological offerings look like in the future? My guess is that books will become more multifaceted, that publishers will embrace some of the differences between physical paper books and the other mediums. And to some degree this is already happening. Pop-up books draw attention to the paperiness of books, and the past twenty years has seen innovation in pop-up books like never before. By contrast, digital means of reading are starting to take advantage of the possibilities of that medium. Heuristic Media and Ian McKellen have put out a Shakespeare app which makes reading the play a much more interactive experience. You can read, or have parts read to you, or there are images from productions, graphic novel style art, or even scenes acted all at the disposal of the “reader.” So far, it has very good reviews.

Even more traditional books are taking advantage of the plurality available when published through different forms. Books like A Monster Calls have come out in very different versions in quick succession. The paperback and the ebook have only a few illustrations, but the hardcover is almost a graphic novel, full of double page spreads of moody black and white illustrations. Notably, the fasted growing book industry is neither paper nor ebooks, but audiobooks. Flourishing with the digital dissemination, companies such as Audible, and libraries taking on Overdrive, celebrities reading books, and a new podcast culture, audiobooks are on the rise. Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking originated as a TED talk, and became a book, very conscious of its distinct forms. The paper or e-book contained many images, but directed the reader to Amanda Palmer’s website to listen to the music described. At the same time her impressive audiobook (“Written, read and sung by Amanda Palmer”) contained a lot of music, and a great deal of performance even in her reading her own words. Part of the success of audiobooks is this understanding of the ways in which a book may need to change to suit its format. Even stars of the internet (writers of The Oatmeal, xkcd, and Hyperbole and a Half to name just a few) are moving from the screen to the page, translating their writing across mediums, from the new medium to the old. Perhaps this is just to make more money, (they certainly haven’t stopped generating content for the internet) but there is something stable about books compared to the everflickering limelite of the internet. When Allie Brosh talks about her book on her blog, Hyperbole and a Half, she explains that she wanted it to exist on real pages.

I think a lot of the success of these forthcoming generations will be found in finding the right medium to raise your voice. I wrote this paper as a blogpost rather than as a formal academic paper, partially because I wanted to include quite a few images, and it is so nice to be able to just click on the links. I also wanted it to be read by more people than just my own professor, and this seemed like a good place to share it. If it had been an academic paper it would have been harder to strike a warm and inviting tone. In the future I hope to have a friendly approach and an effervescent sparkle to my academic prose, but I haven’t got there just yet. But perhaps most importantly, writing words on this blog seemed like the right place for this argument. Reading about the importance of paper on paper would I suppose emphasize the idea, but reading on a screen about the importance of paper is a reminder that this is not the only way to absorb ideas. Perhaps (if you are very lucky) when you finish reading this sentence, you might have the liberty to go shut off your screen, and read a book.

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