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.
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.