The paper book as an interface and as an object

Have been following, with some interest, the slow landing of e-books into Finland over the last few months. There’s one e-book store open, one opening in November, and at least three more in the works; haven’t gotten around to sampling them yet, but am very interested indeed, though the technology is at ENIAC level and the implementation at the Ivan the Terrible stage (“You wouldn’t steal a — bhlaargh! Blood! Blood everywhere! My axe them small dogs steaming piracy loops of greyred innards — “).

Have been making dents in the wall, too, because various people — snobs would be one word for them, I guess — have been making the same stupid arguments against e-books. (Ebooks? Don’t know; don’t care.)

A recent round-up by Helsingin Sanomat gave voice to great many people about the subject; the newspaper apparently has a “stable” of one hundred or so persons of note, artists and scientists and journalists and TV faces, that they regularly ask for short comments about some news subject. That was, this time round, “will the e-book supplant paper books?”

I nearly popped a vein reading some of these supposed arguments.

For example, “the paper book cannot be beat as comes to its interface and durability”?

Has this person, which I out of petty spite refuse to give a name to, ever tried to read a paperback while using the other hand to eat a piece of cake? As near to can’t be done as can be, unless one does grievous and irreversible damage to the book’s spine. And even I don’t have the shovel hands necessary to comfortably read a hardcover with just one hand.

Has this person ever been in a chilly room, with gloves on, trying to read a book? Or in any kind of a reading situation whatsoever, outside a lectern, with Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History or some similar Labradoodle crusher of a book?

Has this person ever frowned and glanced at the page numbers, just to see if he turned two pages by mistake?

Has this person ever been frustrated by the publisher’s choice of font and font size or, heavens help us, margins or the lack of them?

A paper book has a passing fair interface as long as reading is all you are doing; but “cannot be beat” just is not true. It’s a hallelujah moment of some strength when you can turn a page with a twitch of a finger, and realize there’s no need for the tedious fishing and flicking of pages.

As far as durability goes, a fair point, so far. But where are my rainproof paper books, dammit! Not that e-book readers are waterproof either, but that at least I can imagine happening in ten years or so; I don’t really expect to see a complete paperback set of rain- and liquidproof, easy-to-wipe… wait, I don’t like where this is going. My point is, if you want some new external, material feature in paper books, you have to put it in every single book. If you want a waterproof e-book, you just build a waterproof reader and all your books are waterproof! I admit that while I whimper if I drop a paper book, I fairly scream if my e-book reader drops; but that too is easier to improve because the price of the improvement goes to one single device, instead of every single book you buy. (“A drop survival device in a paperback? Adds five euros to the price? Get out of here!” — “The device costs five euros more; but there’s no danger of nulling your library if you drop it.”)

(As for the objection that an e-book reader is not a casual object, really, as you regret losing one a whole lot more than you’d cuss over misplacing a paperback — well, the prices are coming down. Being ignorant of the finer aspects of technology, I don’t see a reason why e-book readers shouldn’t be priced the same as hardcover books are now, eventually. One can get really casual with a twenty-euro device; even with a fifty-euro device, to see how people treat their mp3 players. And of course in any sane world to lose one’s reader wouldn’t be to lose one’s library; any sane system would have backups on your computer, and coupons to reload your purchases; maybe your ur-library would be floating on a cloud somewhere; who knows. How about your paper library’s resistance to fire, floods and theft?)

Another example: “The e-book is a brutally simple mass consumption product that has nothing to do with books or literature. A real book is a philosophical object which” — ah, fuck it, need to place my head in a corner and take deep breaths.

What is a book, anyway?

Is it this papery shell, nothing more? Is bindings and paper all a book is? Are the covers that by which one judges if something is literature or… a mass consumption product? Is it this leafy body which is to be the sole judge of a book’s worth and station; this shell, this incidental piece of pigment and cardboard, and not the soul that beats within? Are the covers that which to judge the book by, really? Does a book’s material birth matter more than the mind within? Is that all?

You, dear lady, are a container racist. (Eh, M-of-E, overreach much?)

I’m pretty sure there are e-books of real literature, too; I don’t think they lose anything essential in transition. Sure, there are breathtakingly pretty, and in my part dizzyingly greed-inspiring, editions of classics and other books; but I’d guess the “common editions” of most books don’t need to be precious objects worthy of display and possession. Some books are disappointments. Some books are stinkers. Some books are made to be read once; others, zero point two times and not more. Some books you just read and then move on. It would be stupid to obtain each in the form of an object worthy of veneration; that’s an honor to be reserved to the books that one treasures and wishes to have around; one’s anchors, one’s talismans, one’s treasures. That’s what paper books should be: not something to be spat out in masses and then pulped if they don’t sell, but precious singular objects that create an altar-mirror which reflects your tastes, delights and desires.

Maybe this would be a fitting future model: Buy an e-book; read it. If you like it, order an individually printed paper version of it, in a font and paper size of your choice, with a cover of your choice, to be a part of your “altar-mirror”. And if you really want to underline your attachment, don’t do such a simple order from some future version of Lulu; invest a bit more in a hand-bound volume. (I’d guess that a bookbinder, given some simple access to printed sheets, could do work like this for a few hundred euros or so. That’s a fair price for a centerpiece.) Who knows, one might even take the sheets and engage in some bookbinding with one’s own hands! (Which I say with a chuckle, because it’s harder than it seems.)

Some books are philosophical objects to some people; but most books are, for most people, not philosophical objects but consumption objects. It’s a bit of a wasteful ad-hoc system that each book is produced as a potential philosophical object; would be much better to make books as consumption objects and trust that those who want a special edition will create a market for them.

Because I’m a foolish optimist, I trust that publishers would not be anal-oral-ouroborosed idjits, and would allow the “localization in paper” and “sheet printing for a fee” that the smooth making of these individualised memorial copies would require; there after all is a copier-sized machine already that can make a cheap paperback.

No reason some such device shouldn’t be one half of any bookstore of the future: the place of printing, and a shelf of examples of varying levels of intricateness and expense, plus objects from binders overseas. The store could also sell the reader devices, and provide one sure port into whichever way e-books would be delivered through; also technical advice and “navigational help” — Amazon is already a daunting experience if you don’t quite know what you want. No doubt there would be a few devices for the in-store use of visitors that happened to leave their own home (“Forget me own head next!”) and still wanted to check what was new. (Or, and this idea really excites me, sheets and small “zines” of e-paper that would turn their internal ink globules with a touch of a data pointer, and become introductory displays for different books du jour. And, frankly, by such a point in history, e-books would have color and wouldn’t mind if you smashed them with a hammer; they would be as much scary technological objects as a flashlight is.)

A lot of what I’m trying to say is, I think, that some paper books are precious, but that preciousness depends a lot on the content and the person who reads it, not on the material itself; and most paper books are instantiated as material-philosophical object manifestation thingamajics merely because there has been no more convenient way to deliver and consume them. Now that one such way is coming, it’s not all that sensible to grow sentimental over one’s ratty Tom Clancy paperbacks.

(Not that “a philosophical object” equals a hardcover — come to think of it, I think I’ll be back to the business of manhandling a printer and a straight-cutter and swearing a lot, because I suddenly have a craving for a small, slim copy of Fungi from Yuggoth that I could carry in a breast pocket; one sonnet per page, or so. This is the hour when moonstruck poets know / What fungi sprout in Yuggoth, and what scents / And tints of flowers fill Nithon’s continents — ah!)

It’s not that e-books are consumption trash and a miscarriage of scientistic modernism, and paper books precious mystical ur-objects of intimate worth; no. The more exact point is, I think, nothing so dismissive: paper books are not the best possible system, except for the books that you personally love and revere, or just tangibly desire. Most books ought to be casual things, casual pleasures, and e-books are just that. Not trash or evil, but just casual, easy, fairly floatsome. And paper books ought to be personal decisions of keeping, not of acquiring; weekend horses instead of the car you ride to work; luxuries instead of casualties. (Luxury-ities? Casualities?) It’s a mistake to cast the thing as a battle of a holy classical thing versus a low-brow new modern one, or as convenience food versus French cooking. There is no such supposed “universal difference”; only the difference between “my casual” and “my precious”; or at most between two neutral tools, one fit for one purpose, and another best fit for a different one. (Myself I’d take a plate of chopped sausage and fries from a grill over French cooking any day; also, I have no interest at all in Paulo Coelho but give me Stephen King and hot shit we’re cooking.)

Compare this — if you buy a bottle of really fine whiskey, you value the packaging, too; all the carving and shaping and fine design in it, because it is an object of intense, nearly ritual pleasure; or so my brother the whiskey enthusiast says. He certainly uses the bottles, whether empty or not, as decorative pieces, as symbols of pleasure. But when you buy milk, you don’t really want it in a glass carafe, do you?

(Just to be fair, the comments mutilated above were from Juha Kuisma, an author, and Akuliina Saarikoski, a journalist. And come to think of it, I ended up agreeing with the second, in a way. Gettin’ in a steaming analytical rage does that, sometimes. My own opinions are those of Mr. M-of-Eris, a grad student of math and a ne’er-do-well netling. And as for libraries, they are holy inviolate temples of the written word, and as sacred as any place in a godless world can be, no matter how that contradicts everything I’ve written above.)

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