Baby, Meet Bathwater

Hello again from Sarah Graves, thinking today about this morning’s headline: “Richard Russo boycotts e-books.” Well, of course he is doing no such thing. He’s simply decided to publish one book, a collaboration with his daughter and son-in-law called Interventions, as a paper-and-print-only production with Down East Books instead. And while I have no personal knowledge of the reasons for his decision, a look at the four-volume Interventions with its lovely covers, slipcase, illustrations, and enclosed print of one of his daughter’s paintings, suggests one: as an ebook, it’s impossible.

You can’t send four different beautiful covers to a Kindle, after all, nor will that slipcover travel well electronically. I haven’t seen inside the book, but I suspect the full effect of its illustrations might not translate to a lowish-resolution screen. The print of the illustrator’s painting, too, is a problem; you can only see it with your e-reader turned on, not propped up against your reading lamp so it’s the first thing you lay eyes on when you open them in the morning (note to self: do this).

In short, you can get content on an e-reader. Information. Just the facts, ma’am. But as any self-respecting sleuth knows, the facts aren’t enough. Context is everything. If it weren’t, novels could alll be twenty pages long, since that’s about what it takes to convey “just the facts” of a novel’s story.

I bring this all up partly to point out an instance of what I’ve been saying generally in the past: that if “book” comes entirely to mean “e-book,” we’ll lose a lot. Dust jackets, endpapers, typeface, bindings — none of that (and so much more!) will exist anymore. Worse, we won’t be able to get it back on any large scale. Once the most popular books are read mostly on e-readers, all the machinery of print publishing will be too expensive to maintain just for the “special” books. Small presses can take up some slack and even do a better job on the publishing side, often, but the marketing, publicity, and distribution will be just that: smaller. There won’t be a big machine to campaign or do anything else for a book; there won’t be a big machine at all.

A page from House of Leaves

Not only that, some books just won’t get written. Anything that depends for its effect on a look at the whole page — books with lots of typography stunts and/or footnotes, for instance, like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest just aren’t the same when you can’t see all the elements at once, or until you scroll down. I’m not suggesting those two authors would’ve been deterred. But if I’m thinking about writing a book that consists for example only of emails, diary entries, phone messages, and newspaper articles (possibly with a few cop car radio transmissions, a threat scrawled in fingerpaint, and a teenager’s text messages thrown in), I can’t help knowing that what that book’s page used to look like is now a thing mostly of the past. That people just didn’t think that sort of detail was important, so now it’s gone. That maybe I should do something else, something e-friendlier, you know?

Nor am I suggesting a boycott of ebooks. That would be futile and silly. I’m just saying (again!) that McLuhan was right, that the medium really is the message, and that since we seem to have chosen the one we want — the electronic one, with all that it implies —  we should at least own up to having chosen, also, what we don’t want. What, that is, we’ve decided to throw out with the paper-and-print bathwater.

There’s a piece in The Nation magazine called “The Amazon Effect” that describes Amazon’s rise from Jeff Bezos’ vision to retail behemoth with special emphasis on the shift to digital books. He says a couple of things in it that have made people mad, but if you can overlook that (I can and do) and if this subject interests you as it does me, you might want to have a look.







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4 Responses to Baby, Meet Bathwater

  1. Joan Emerson says:

    May we learn the lesson before it’s too late . . . e-books certainly have their place [and I must admit to being rather fond of my e-reader, aptly named Miss Nook by the resident princess]. However, while the resident princess and her brother may enjoy a foray into the world of Miss Nook’s “Read and Play” children’s books, in the end they [suitably guided by my own prejudices, I suppose] always want a “real” book in their hands and a trip to the library or the bookstore becomes an exquisitely exciting adventure for them. It is hard to imagine a literary world bereft of traditionally-published “real” books: print, paper, dust jacket, and all that goes along with it . . . . Please preserve us from our own short-sightedness and stupidity — unlike Mr. Bezos I am not going to be happy if I do not have a “real” book that I can hold in my hands, one whose pages I can touch and feel and turn . . . and treasure.

  2. Barb Ross says:

    I will definitely read this article. Thanks, Sarah.

    I think we should assume that e-book technology will continue to evolve–so something like four covers in good resolution will be entirely possible, but we’d still be missing the tactile value of something like Interventions’ packaging.

    There are things I miss about albums and album covers. On the other hand, I love hooking up my phone to my car’s sound system, finding my Pandora station and enjoying the ride. I love that my house is not so full of my husband’s CD collection that I can’t display a single photo or knick-knack.

    I don’t think books will go away in my lifetime. While it feels like albums turned to cds turned to downloads overnight, I see books having a much longer tail, like fireplaces. Houses are still built with them even though we don’t use them for either heat or cooking.

  3. Jean Lamb says:

    You’d be amazed what you can do with Adobe Acrobat–a pdf form read on a Kindle Fire or a color Nook could easily provide different typographical events and more illustrations than most print publishers could possibly afford to provide. I viewed some illuminated manuscripts at Getty Museum last year (slobber drool lust) and realized that reproductions would be much cheaper to view electronically than in print; and that lavishly illustrated works would be much more affordable and possible in electronic formats than in four-color print versions.

  4. Paul Doiron says:

    As the Editor in Chief of Down East, I want to thank you, Sarah, for setting the record straight. It’s been strange for us to watch the (international) media concoct this story about Rick Russo going on a crusade against all ebooks, when really he just wanted to demonstrate that print still has a place in this culture by doing a tactile volume with his daughter and son-in-law.

    It’s foolish to make predictions about the fate of books, but they do enjoy one quality that albums didn’t (for the most part): people use them to decorate their homes. I’ve written lots of architectural articles in my day, and every one of those fancy homeowners had a coffee table with very specific books on it or a shelf with a set of carefully curated volumes. People use books to demonstrate their tastefulness, intellectual curiosity, and sense of humor—even when they don’t actually posses any of those virtues and are only faking it.

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