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November 29, 2007

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

Print and Sentiment

The reaction to the Kindle by Internet pundits seems mixed so far, which is fine--everyone gets an opinion, and most of them are wrong. But what amazes me is the incredible attachment to the printed book. John Gruber, a man who never met a sneer he didn't like, links to one typographer's view:

PEOPLE DON'T WANT TO READ BOOKS ON A SCREEN. Why is that so hard for someone as obviously smart as Jeff Bezos to accept? The reason the iPod took off is that music was never meant to be a 'thing' in the first place. It was born as pure sound, and pure sound is what it has returned to. But books were always physical objects, and the printed book as a piece of technology has yet to be improved upon. And won't. Certainly not by something that looks like a prop from Charlie's Angels and has, are you ready, a whopping ONE typeface. For everything! Yay!
Who would have thought? Someone who makes book covers for a living isn't keen on the idea.

But of course, this is completely wrong. Music hasn't returned to "pure sound" at all, and while it might have started that way it hasn't existed in that form for more than 70 years, since people sold sheet music on the streetcorner. Music is a commodity now, and the iPod didn't change that. If anything, it made it worse.

In fact, the music metaphor works, but not the way the writer clearly hopes. He's expressing a kind of nostalgia for the form of the printed word--hence his distaste for "a whopping one typeface" and the concept of reading on a screen, no matter how good it is (and an e-ink screen is shockingly good). People like this confuse the form of the book with what really makes it important: the information inside. The form is important, granted, since a display that distracts or grates on the eyes prevents you from getting at that information. But it's not the book, any more than a CD is the music.

Insisting that a book has to be on paper is like insisting that music has to be on vinyl, because without the feel of a record's grooves "it's just not the same experience." It was a silly point of view then, and it's a silly point of view now. I'm not saying that the Kindle will change everything, necessarily, but it seems curiously obtuse to insist that the change is never going to come just because you like paper. I like paper too, but I'm not going to insist that there's something magical and perfect about it that will last forever.

Here's the thing: like a lot of other people, I've been reading e-books for years now. Every PDA I've owned, practically my first move has been to put an e-book reader on it. It's incredibly convenient: I bore easily, but I've almost always got something to read. And I'm not really an oddity. Lots of people read onscreen for hours a day--you know, what with the Internet, and all.

I could say a lot of great things about electronic text. I took my current job because journalism is going through this same transition (and not always gracefully), and I wanted to be a part of it. I think it's genuinely important. But I will point out at least one way that the form of a physical book is something not to romanticize:

Yesterday I re-read Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks. It's one of my favorite books, and Banks is one of my favorite authors. Sadly, my copy of Player of Games is stolen. It's a bootleg e-book that I picked up my senior year of college. I wish I could have paid for it--but of course, the book's been unavailable in the US for more than 10 years now. Banks's other titles have been out of print for even longer. For some reason--perhaps because of his outspoken Socialist beliefs--American publishers don't bring most of his stuff here, with the exception of a short-story collection and a couple of the weaker (and less political) novels. Good luck finding him in your average Barnes and Noble.

Now, at the moment Kindle doesn't offer those missing Banks titles either. But that doesn't have to be the case. There's no burden for shipping an e-book, or for "printing" it domestically. There's no reason that I shouldn't be able to buy it and give money to my favorite author. That's the whole point of digital distribution--indeed, that's the whole promise of the Internet: it eliminates the physical space that, while traditional, is also cumbersome and prone to interference by powerful actors.

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