Friday, December 11, 2009

The Thingyness of Books: An Ode to Paper

I've been thinking about something bookish the last few days, and so I thought I'd give it a whirl here on the blog. It started when I read this article, by Alan Kaufman, last Friday (linked by the irrepresible ebooknocrat Nathan Bransford).

Now, I'd have to agree with everyone who said the article was alarmist and overdone - and perhaps rather insensitive, considering some of the comparisons made. And I found this unfortunate because underneath the hyperbolic rhetoric there were some interesting ideas.

I should say, first, that I'm not exactly anti-ebook. It's obvious that it's going to be a major growth market over the next few years, and if it makes some (or many) readers happy, then I'm glad. I saw my first live Kindle the other day. It's a very neat gadget, and I can see why some people like them. My neighbours were certainly thrilled with it. And this shows both its potential (so seductive)... and that the timeline may be a little slower than some people think. I'd never seen one until a few days ago. Never. There's a long way to go, it seems, before we reach market saturation.

But that saturation point may be somewhere around the corner. If and when... that seems pretty uncertain to me. But since the possibility is on the horizon it does make me think about that article. Certainly it would not be the end of culture, of literature and all things human, as Kaufman suggested. That's utterly alarmist. But there is a loss. And perhaps it's an acceptable loss, but loss it still is.

What I think is lost is the particularity and uniqueness of a book. And I don't mean "books", plural and in the abstract. I mean book, singular and concrete. A book is an object. It's something real that you hold in your hands, something unique that exists outside all other things.

This is what we lose with ebooks. Now, yes, there is something egalitarian about ebooks, about everything being reduced to digital coding, a sort of democratic darwinism at play in the shuffle of digital texts as they jockey for the limelight. Stripped down and sleek, reduced only to the essentials, the strings of words that form the backbone of their meaning.

And this is the essential part. The words, the sentences, the stories. And this is why the Kaufman article is so alarmist. The stories will be saved, will still be savoured and shared.

Yet a book is something a little more than its essentials. Perhaps these little trimmings are only of passing interest and shedding them will come at little cost... but I, for one, will miss them. And perhaps we all will, too, when we have a chance to look back from the digital future to a paper-filled past.

A book is a thing. A particular thing. And not just in the sense that Stephen King's Under the Dome is different from Marilynne Robinson's Home, but in the sense that one Home is different from another Home. Hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback... yes, yes, but even between one trade paperback and another. Each book is its own entity with its own history. Some fresh out of box or wrapper, others that have been read, that have been handled and dropped and picked up again. Some have been shared, passed from person to person, each new reader leaving a few traces of themselves behind. A few crumbs, or lines underlined, or signatures offered. A pretty boy or girl's phone number scrawled on the inside of a cover in a script loopy with hope and alive with the electricity of the moment's connection.

A little story: I found, once and long ago, a copy of a book in a used bookstore, a book called If On A Winter's Night A Traveler, by Italo Calvino, one of my favourite writers. It's a postmodern sort of book, self-aware and self-referential, knowing itself as a story and sharing that knowingness with its readers. And one of these previous readers had written comments on these intertextual comments, a sort of conversation, inter and outer at the same time. And yet another reader (with yet another penmanship) offered comments on these comments.

And what I had in my hands was a book utterly unique in the world. There was nothing else like it. The meaning of the text had bled outside the words, outside the sentences set on the page.

I regret this loss in ebooks, where stories are reduced to encoded text, a book pared to its essential minimum. Lost is this conversation, the uniqueness of the book as object. I can see ebooks blurring a little at the edges. The unchanging device, the eye that can no longer differentiate between one story and the next. A vagueness creeps in along the borders, like photographs slightly out of focus. Liminal spaces grow, a No Man's Land that swallows a few lines here, a few lines there.

And the thingyness of books is lost. The choice, for a book, between using one kind of paper and the next. The texture of it, the faint pebbling of it against the fingertips, the richness of the colour, the revels of whiteness in a thousand shades. Smooth edge, or rough? I like those rough-edged pages, sort of feathered and soft, the little peaks and valleys running along the edge of the books. (With ebooks there are no edges at all.) The cover art, and the cover itself. The weight of it, the way the pages turn. The binding, loose or tight. It's not a perfect world, I admit. Water damage, spines breaking, bindings loosening until pages drop like leaves in the cold of autumn. Not a perfect world, but a real and particular one. Each leaf, living and dying, unlike the rest.

I think of a future where each leaf is really just a dream, a dream of a leaf in a treeless world, and in this future I find myself a little wistful, a little sad, a little cold. There is just the ether, the wind whistling through, unobstructed, across a grey and featureless plain.


Josie said...

Lovely post...I work for a book printer and we felt kind of sad today because one of the books we've been reprinting for years is now an e-book. Very efficient, and was, as you say, a unique object with an intriguing cover, it had a "thingyness" and now it's a file on an e-reader. Something IS lost.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

So melancholy today, my friend. But I understand. And you do it well.

To your points:

I remember walking through the ancient stacks at my midwestern college, opening up random 100 year old books and marveling that I could do so. No one stopped me from handling the artifacts.

Is there a loss, with the coming of the e-book overlords? No doubt.

But, there is a compelling human need to own things, to leave a mark, a sign of our existence, for the future to know that we were. A similar drive sends us searching for those artifacts of the past, the lens we peer through to see where we came from, who we were, so we can know who we are.

These things will continue.

I have faith, above all, in the essentials of humanity. And those driving needs will find a way to preserve the leaf, to beautify the grey and featureless plain, to communicate with our past ghosts and future selves.

My undying curiousity makes me thirsty to see how we will do that next. We can only do it better if we bring the best of the way we do it now.

So, what part of the Age of Paper would you bring to the future Age of Ether?

Bryan Russell said...

I think I'll miss that sense of particularity. I mean, there's times I've fallen in love with a book as much because of its physical presence as the story. The book itself is like a hook in the mouth. It's that connection... a cover, a title, the weight of it as you pull it off the shelf. A matte finish, perhaps, and the smoothness of how the pages turn.

There's a connection there that's lost. I mean, people will love their ereaders, the thing that brings them books. But I don't think it's the same. I mean, I appreciate my DVD player for what it does. But the object itself has little to captivate me. I don't go in and look at my DVD player and say "Wow, that's beautiful." It doesn't connect me with particular memories or stories. It's hosted many, and its skin is just blurred over with them. A hundred, a thousand.

So, yeah, what I'll miss is that particularity, that sense of personal connection between person and object, between object and story, between story and person. All interwoven.

Mira said...

Beautifully written, Bryan. I've never been sentimental about books, but for a moment, you really made me feel the paper under my fingertips and then the loss of that feeling.

But - I honestly don't think books as an object will go away. If anything, they may become an art form.

I do know that your love of books and paper is shared by many. :)

dolorah said...

I have to agree that Kaufman's essay was very angsty; but I do agree with the sentiment. You put his views neatly in perspective Ink.

Unfortunately, I have to agree that the printed book is on it's way into obscurity. Text books and manuals will probably always be around (think of the money Universities would lose if they didn't have those expensive, required books for classes to overcharge for) but our young people are growing up in the age of technology and instant info gratification.

Not long ago I had one a young man ask what a "boom box" was. Many of our children today have no clue that "cutting a record deal" could mean anything other than producing a CD. Sadly, the world moves on; progress replaces tradition.

I am looking forward to getting a Kindle some day, but I doubt I'll give up my physical book collection. I also have books on the shelf with notes and musings in the margins. And covers; I really love the covers on some of my books.

I guess all we book lovers can do is hold out as long as possible and keep buying paper books until they are no longer available.


Unknown said...

I couldn't read a book that I couldn't hold in my lap and stroke the pages of or scribble in with red pen if I were feeling mischievous. I just couldn't do it. I'd rather watch TV

Anonymous said...

I personally have no problem with the e-books, but it can never truly get rid of the feel one has with actually holding a book in your hand.

And if the publishing industry really does want to ensure the survival of the "traditional" publishing, then I might suggest that one might want to lower their prices. I'm not an economist, but usually that is more than enough to draw in new and returning customers.

But that's just me.

Bryan Russell said...

As long as they don't lower our royalties. :)

K. A. Jordan said...

I liked your essay, Ink. It is a lovely feeling, to have a book in hand. But I can't afford hard cover books - for the most part - unless they are second hand.

The essay you linked to - well - I'm going to have to re-read it in order to make sense of it. The references to Nazis have blown his credibility in my mind.

We will always have books.

Children's books will always have to be on paper. Unless we go with the book-spouting teddy bears. (Not likely for a few years.)

I'll probably blog about this myself.

Bryan Russell said...

Ms Kitty,

Remind me when you do so I don't forget to check it out.

K. A. Jordan said...

Hi Y'all

I have put my hat in the ring, so to speak. "Is Fear of the E-book Killing Bookstores" is now up on my blog.

I'm blogging all month about self-publishing. So there is that to look at as well.

Anonymous said...

"Hi-Tech Taliban" (Evergreen Review #121)
"Google Books and Kindle: A Concentration Camp of Ideas" (Huffington Post)

Alan Kaufman said...

I fail to see what is so "lovely" in your sexless and tepid musings about the destruction of a human institution --the book and book culture-- upon which, for so long, our very sense of humanity was founded. Where is your outrage? Where is your refusal? Capitulate to this scandelous corporate cultural rape and some day you will find yourself and your loved ones behind barbed wire and everything that you ever held dear destroyed.
Alan Kaufman