Monday, August 23, 2010


Pardon the hiatus, there, but what can I say, it's August. Rhian read my novel draft and spent two days telling me what's wrong with it--that deserves a ten-day blogging break, right? Actually, she saved the thing--I was going to feed it to the hens. She is now preparing a monster post on something or other, brace yourselves.

Meanwhile, the forces of gadgetism were out in strength. Our old advocate for arbitrary, profit-generating change, Nicholas Negroponte, gave the physical book five years to live.

One rolls one's eyes. One palms one's face. But seriously now--could he be right? I myself personally have bought about half a dozen e-books this year, and despite my ongoing love affair with the iPad, the experience was inferior to that of reading a paper book in pretty much every way. Maybe I'm weird, though. The only Kindle I've logged any time with didn't impress me either, though I did see a lot of them at the Jersey Shore this year. (I am tempted to drop a benjamin and a couple of tommyjeffs on the new edition, Just To See.) Maybe people are really digging this stuff. I don't buy CDs anymore--perhaps books are like CDs, for most people.

And furthermore, even if he is right, do we care? The writer in me doesn't, but the reader in me certainly does. Rhian's guess: hardcovers and textbooks will die, paperbacks will soldier on indefinitely. Vinyl, after all, is still readily available, and I'm even still shooting film (or will be when I get around to ordering more stop bath).

The one thing I am certain I would like to see die is the public declaring of the impending death of stuff. But that's one thing I suspect is immortal.


D said...

It's possible. Hard as it is to ignore examples like CDs and film, that argument ignores the fact that books are the only medium that physically interacts with the consumer; music is heard through a speaker and films are viewed on a screen. That relationship -- holding a book in your hands, turning the pages, dog-ears and bookmarks, tossing trashy paperbacks across the room -- will keep books alive in some way shape or form.

5 Red Pandas said...

Considering that I just spent the last 7 weeks in Taiwan, I should have been the perfect customer for an iPad or Kindle. But. But. But. I didn't get either one. Instead, I brought about 15 books with me. I didn't bring two suitcases to spread out the load and I ended up having to pay extra for the excess pounds. It was worth it, though! I didn't read all 15 books but I read most of them all the way through, and I dipped into the others. The list of books I brought with me was fairly varied and I am sure that I wouldn't have found many of them as ebooks. I certainly needed that many books to satisfy the reader inside me on my long trip away from home, and away from English language bookstores.

I don't think I could comfortably read an entire book on a screen. I love using my iPod touch, but that's not for sustained reading. I spent hours and hours reading in Taiwan (among many other cool things). That said, we still buy cds and sometimes vinyl that has digital download codes, but I certainly didn't bog my suitcase down with cds. I used my trusty iPod for my music cravings and I must say it was fully satisfied. I remember the days when I would bring cds to Taiwan because really, how else would I hear Pavement? I agonized over my choices because I could only reasonably bring a select few cds. So I love the iPod for what it allows you to bring when you travel. I guess I might eventually adjust to some type of e-reader, but for this last long trip I did it the old fashioned way and it wasn't too inconvenient.

I did abandon some books in Taiwan. I left a bunch for my cousin who is studying English. She told me she loved Mitch Albom so I'm not sure she'll like the novels I left behind, but that's for her to decide.

Anonymous said...

I'm guilty of comparing the music and publishing industries--I do it all the time. But the various analog/digital comparisons, when you're talking about the actual medium, don't seem to me to be all that apt, most of the time. The way we use records is not analagous to the way we use books--or it's analagous only in a limited way. There's no question that digital books will soon overtake physical books in terms of sales, but I can't help but think they serve different purposes, and that paper books will have a small but sustainable market.

Sung said...

The five-year thing is not gonna happen. Books may be low tech, but they actually are surprisingly high tech in many ways. For example, random access -- fastest way to get to page 600 of a 1000 paged book is by marking it with a Post-It. Sure, you can use the bookmark feature of the ebook, but I'm not sure if it's actually faster. Writing on the margins is still impossible on an ebook, though I suppose you could with the iPad, but is it as easy and as quick?

I've always believed the ebook of the future would behave just like the real thing, 100%. There would be physical electronic pages to flip, you'd be able to take a stylus and write on its surface, etc. Because the only thing wrong about the paper-based book is its material. The UI is pretty darn perfect.

Congrats, by the way, on the novel draft!

- Sung

jon said...

There's the preservation issue too. As long as the language is a living language, or there's someone who understands how to read it, and the paper is good, the book will last, far longer than the coding does for e-books, or the devices themselves, or the medium the book is stored on.
the novel has been proclaimed dead every twenty minute for the last hundred years, but it soldiers on, in pretty much the same forms it has assumed for the past 200 years.
i guess what worries me is not the death of the author, or the death of the novel, or the death of the book, but the death of the reader. if no one cares about literature beyond a small group of people, authors, novels, and books will be in bad shape.
this happened to poetry long ago. it soldiers on. no one reads it. more people write it than ever before.
oh, and i love traveling with my arms weighed down by books. there is nothing like sitting on a train for two days with a 1000 page book.

Kevin said...

I have a Kindle coming sometime in the next couple of weeks, thought I'd check it out -- I've been doing enough travel lately to make it possibly worthwhile. I just broke off reading "War and Peace" because I had a 24-pound luggage limit on the floatplane to Orcas and didn't want to carry the hardcover with me. Will file a report after I've had a chance to use it for a while. One thing that worries me is that I hear you lose the muscle memory that enables you to find that one great passage that's like nine lines down on the right-hand side about a hundred and seventy pages in. This kind of physical, tangible location is the only way I can ever find anything in a book after I've read it. We'll see.

rmellis said...

What I found interesting about the Kindle (relatives reading them at the beach) is that it tells you how far into a book you are by percentages -- instead of the thickness of the stacks of read and unread pages in your left and right hands, you get a number.

I feel like the technology can't *help* but change the content -- or the medium change the message. The technology of printing created the chapter and the 300 page novel. What will the ebook do? If the primary way we read fiction is on a device, fiction will most certainly change. But how?

I have 2 competing predictions, actually: Either nothing much will change, and people will continue to read fiction in ebook or paperback form just as we do now. Or, once the publishing industry withers away, people will stop reading fiction. Like Jon said -- fiction will go the way of poetry.

Russell said...

Scale might help to save the physical book. On Shackleton's "valiant" voyage (to the South Pole) almost 100 years ago, some of the crew took the Bible and re-read it several times. No need for anything else. Imagine one song on your iPod for such a journey (even the longest movement in the Hammerklavier would wear thin). So I'm not all that worried. And though I'm a "techie" type of guy (a Luddite/techie hybrid), the books on my shelves alone would take another forty years to adequately re-read. That said, I suspect the Kindle et al. are great for those who mainly read the latest nonfiction: long-form journalism, stale if you wait too many weeks. Speaking of journalism, I haven't read the NYT on paper since 1996; nonetheless, I read the NYT so much that I need to stop. Dostoevsky, on the other hand: well, you either spend many, many hours between the covers with him or you just don't get it. (And I'm sure I don't: I haven't even read "The Possessed"; remind me to pick that up at the library after I'm finished with the lovely long-form novel that I'm currently reading.)

margosita said...

"The one thing I am certain I would like to see die is the public declaring of the impending death of stuff. But that's one thing I suspect is immortal."

I'd like to see this, too! But I fear you're right.

christianbauman said...

Worth pointing out that USA and UK are among the few nations in the world valiantly holding on to hardbacks, anyway. And UK numbers are rapidly dwindling. Across the rest of Europe and the world, hardbacks are a rare event indeed. I'd always said that my mark of success as a novelist would be when I saw some kid pull a dog-eared paperback of one of my books out of a backpack. And indeed, the day that happened was the day I felt real as a writer. Long way of saying, hardbacks can 95% go away and good riddance. They're extraordinarily expensive, and the "hook" story used to convince authors they're a good thing (you make more $$ off of them!!) is buried by the fact that many more authors than those who get reward from them have seen their careers stall when they didn't sell enough hardback to go into paperback and then carried that halo into an inability to sell their next book. Look, I spent a large part of my childhood in the Hunterdon County (NJ) and Lafayette College (PA) libraries...I love physical books. Period. My house is full of them, I surround myself with them and they make me happy to hold and to look at. But I have a Kindle and I love my Kindle. It can be improved; and I've also no doubt it will be. The world is moving on. But the story isn't going anywhere.

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