Re-looking at books

I missed a recent article in the Times Sunday Styles Magazine about an antiquarian bookshop in Toronto that serves as an excuse to mull on the question: But what’s a book for?

The article doesn’t (can’t) address the issue, the one I see most frequently raised by e-book objectors of aesthetics and (unspoken, their privilege & class) involved in some people’s assertions that we must save books in the format of books and to hell with e-readers, goddamn them, because paper is inherently better.

(Disclosure, again– I own a Nook HD+ and I work for the Chain Bookstore that sells it.  But I’d own an e-reader even if I didn’t work there.  I have taught and will continue to teach classes at my local library in how to use any e-reader or e-reader program on a computer, because the ergonomic and adaptive uses alone for the visually impaired outweigh any objection any paper and hardcover snob might ever levy against it.  I also teach people how to use the internet and email.  Tech is the future, whether we like it or not.)

Nor does the writer or its bookshop-owner subject address how e-books provide new authors access to audiences when the Big Six are all about barriers to market entry (and abysymal taste, publishing retreads instead of taking new chances), or how e-book pricing and contracts are re-writing the ways (mostly good, and John Scalzi at his blog Whatever and Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton anywhere you can google them, ever, are far better at explaining these issues than I) in which authors are paid commensurate with their actual work, without the black box of excess publishing overhead.  There’s no discussion of the environmental aspect of clutter and paper waste for pulp fiction, even at the mass market level, much less the sheer enormous waste that goes into physical book production when so much content is trash and ends up as remainders.  The numbers of books my one store sends back in quarterly returns as unsold alone is astounding.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars, all of the time.

The article does, however, raise the interesting and important issue of books qua cultural mirror, as artifacts of particular times and places, subcultures, interests– and hints at what Google Books doesn’t do, which is slow us down to appreciate age, to handle the past with reverence, to chuckle over how weird people have been and always will be, because who really cares about toll roads in Kent County in England?

And yet, somebody did, and the fact is, all of us have our own peculiar passions, some of which some of us even blather about on the internet, hoping some day we’ll get the guts up to turn it into something chaptered.

And that’s what books are good for.  But e-books are good for that too, because anyone can write about what they find fascinating, and if others want to read about that, the audience and the writer will find each other.

Is there something lost through the electronic form?  Maybe.  Will there be some decay in the aesthetics of book design and layout?  Perhaps.  (Perhaps not.  Have you seen the design blogs on the web?)  But will we catch up with ourselves again, and find new ways to manipulate digital images so that e-books, however “impermanent,” leave us with the same sense of wonder, belonging, kinship that we first felt poring over the color plates in our (now disintegrating) Little House on the Prairie?

I think so.  The e.e. cummings, Jennifer Egans, Douglas Couplands, Mark Danielewskis and Robin Sloans of the world have played with format and typography, layout, chronology too, all in the service of telling (or not telling) the story, using the evolving capacities of word processing and computerized typesetting to do new, wondrous things that confound our brains and make us look at words and thing about the world in new ways.  The old books will let us look back and learn, see– this is how things once were– and that is crucial, Spinoza said so, and these things  deserve physical, not just megabyte space, because the frayed bindings and scent of vanillin are as much a part of the experience as the engraved illustrations– but that doesn’t devalue the new content, either.

In the end, though the article doesn’t say this– a book is whatever you need it to be.  A mirror to what’s happening right now.  A radio telescope into the big bang’s distant past.  A satellite that takes pictures of parts of the world we wouldn’t otherwise see.  Different formats will allow you to achieve those different ends.  And that’s all worth preserving, and none of it worth arguing about, because it’s all knowledge at the end of the day.

You never know when you’ll need to know something.  Even about English toll roads.


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