The Physical and The Ethereal
Does something that you cannot heft in your hands have less value, physically and emotionally, than something that does? This is something I've been juggling with for a while, especially when it comes to books. Books are my addiction. Having a book in my hand elicits a response that fills me with joy. But, is it the actual papery thing tied up with sting or is it the contents of it that are important? As I sit and write these words, I am surrounded by books. Having a quick count on the walls either side of me, there are about 380 books on the shelves. Hardback, paperback, signed first editions, special editions, some more loved than others, all wonderful and utter dust magnets. Looking at them, they pull memories from my life. There is the copy of Cold Midnight in Veux Quebec by Eric Wilson that my Uncle David and Aunt Ursala gave me in January 1990, it is inscribed you see and means all the more now that David is no longer with us. There is the battered, well read, copy of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe's Gold, the book I bought on holiday in Cornwell, that truly inspired me to read. There is the proof copy of Conn Iggulden's Empire of Silver I got at a party Harper Collins threw for those of us who posted on Conn's (now virtually dead) message board. It is signed in the front by Conn and his wife, Ellie, and the back by all the guys and girls from the board who I met in person that one and only time. There are classics and pulp, biography and history, comics and literature, the good and the sometimes surprisingly poor. They all live on my shelves. Sometimes they go off to the charity shop, their places taken with new finds and older copies of my favourites that replace the paperbacks. Some are sacred, some are not, all of them are alive and wait, patiently for the next time they whisk me, or a friend, away to that magical place in your minds eye. There are rules though. If you borrow, you cannot crease the spine of a paperback, you cannot have the dust cover of the hardback, you cannot fold the corner of a page over to mark your spot and you will be pestered to return it from the moment you receive it. Those are the rules, this is their home. To the majority, I sound like a man of an older age than my 36. Also sat next to me is my phone and tablet. Both store my study material for the meetings at the Kingdom Hall, both are synchronised together so that I'm always in the right place and both with the capacity to hold all of the books I've ever read or have considered reading, and still have room for more. This is the modern age, why have shelves when everything is a click away in the cloud?
The eBook is one of those modern things I am utterly conflicted by. I use them to study, but hate them all the same with a passion that rivals, and probably surpasses, the Selfie (my feelings about which can be found here). Why? Honestly I'm not really sure. I've grown up with books. There is something special to me about them. But when it comes to music, I'm less fussy. That just about everything I want is on Spotify, makes me happy. Films are more tricky. Netflix and Amazon are great, but the classics, Sunset Boulevard, A Matter of Life and Death, Raiders of the Lost Ark, I buy again and again because they mean more, deserve more, than just a digital stream. So why do I get so worked up about an eBook? Snobbery plays a large part I suppose. A book is nothing more than a collection of words that elicit an emotional response, some more so than others. A digital book does the same, it just does not exist in the same form. Or do they? For me, not so much. For others, the only difference is convenience. I think the moment I went off of eBooks was when I first heard someone explain that they were "43.7% through" a book. Really? I wanted to slap them, but it is no real difference than if someone says that they are on page 210. Personally, the only time I look at page number is if I'm looking something up from an index or making a note of something that stood out on the fly leaf. But each to their own, someone is actually reading, I should be delighted that they are 43.7% into a story they care enough about to remember about the 0.7%. But, that exactness is part of the problem, so is the boasting of carrying "hundreds of books" around in your bag. Are you actually reading them all? I'm a simple soul, I read one at a time, enjoy it, or not, and move on to the next. I think I'm in the minority with that. Given that media today is becoming almost an entirely digital, disposable commodity, what does that mean for us as consumers and for the providers? While a publishing house will delight with the removal of the extreme expense of actually printing and distributing a book, what about the Authors, who once dreamed of writing a book and it now becomes a glorified email, which in itself says a lot.
Jonathan Franzen is famously outspoken about eBooks. At the Hay Festival (a literature fan's Glastonbury) in 2012, Franzen said:
That is a good argument, but as much as I'd like to pull the high brow card, I haven't read any of Franzen's work, so that would be cheating. So I did what everyone does in these situations, I took to Twitter and asked a dozen or so authors I actually read what they thought of eBooks. I went for a dozen as I figured most wouldn't get back to me, but a few did and their answers were rather interesting. I've cobbled together the replies from the 140 character limit to make them readable below. We'll start with one author I've actually met and had a beer or three with, Conn Iggulden, the English teacher turned Historical Fiction author who wrote the brilliant Emperor series about Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus, the Conqueror series about Genghis Khan and his descendants and his latest is set during the Wars of the Roses the latest of which Bloodline, has just been released. I asked Conn what his views on eBooks where, his response was that he personally "had gone of them. But at 90, my Dad found liked the big letter control and found swipping easier than turning the page. Pros therefore for the elderly." I followed by asking about what he felt as an Author, he said he was "keen on eBooks as the royalties are better."
This feeling was echoed by Chris Beckett, author of the Eden books, Dark Eden and Mother of Eden, both given rave reviews here on Boney Abroad. I asked Chris the same question and he replied that, "I read a lot of books on Kindle. There are pros and cons. Paper books are in some ways easier to navigate. As a writer, I want people to read my words, I don't really care if they are paper, digital or carved on sheets of jade." Personally, I'd totally buy the Chris' next book on Jade, should the bank manager allow me. Chris continues, "EBooks are easy to pirate though and it really annoys me when I find some parasite has stolen my hours of work." This is a major point when it comes to all forms of digital media and may also explain why Chris rebuffed my efforts to blag an advanced copy of Mother of Eden. Given that the old fashioned way to pirate a book was to shove it up your jumper in a book store and leg it, or borrow it from the library and forget to return it. With a quick Google search and a bit of piratical attitude, you will find just about everything is available and up for grabs. Where the MP3 and AVI/MKV file has impacted the music, film and TV worlds, publishing is the new wild west. The percentages are higher for an eBook, but like music, they are now a whole lot easier to steal.
Next to offer his two pennies worth was Nick Harkaway. Wearer of Last Exit To Nowhere t-shirts, second generation writer and author of three novels. Nick's latest novel, Tigerman, is out now. In his response to my question, Nick said, "Artistically I don't find eBooks per se exciting. As they are now, they are a digital image of a print - a rather pedestrian one. I think digitisation implies its own storytelling media, but that is another discussion. Commercially, I think eBooks are great. I think the traditional industry still hasn't properly transitioned to digital and I also think the digital industry doesn't understand either the traditional one or itself, it is all in flux." I followed up by asking Nick about a point that Chris Beckett raised. When I asked Chris if he thought that physical books were heading towards the niche end of the market Chris used the analogy of music, "In a similar way, I'm nostalgic for vinyl LP's, but music is music, whether you own a physical object or not." Nick added, "That is part of a more fundamental question about our relationship with text. I think text abides but I did see a note from a woman whose kids use WhatsApp mostly by voice, no text at all, so perhaps not. But, for as long as we have text, we'll have long form text narrative, and the book in some form remains, I think." So in Nick's view, we'll always have the content, the distribution of that content is not quite so clear.
One abiding message was summed up nicely in the response I received from Chris Wooding, author of the brilliant Kitty Jay series. Chris said simply, "Writers get a bigger cut of eBooks, so I'm fine with them, as long as it's balanced with support for book stores and libraries." This is a two edged sword I feel, eBooks enable authors to make a better living from their creations and can spend more time taking us to the wonderful worlds they create. But, and its a big but, by enabling the digital distribution of the content, the already hard pressed book store, under brutal attack from the likes of Amazon, and the library (why borrow from there when you can "borrow" from the internet?) are becoming a more expensive, therefore uneconomical, way of distribution books? Is the convenience of digital download, coupled with the iPad and Kindle generation, the death of the book store and local library? I certainly hope not, they have been declared dead many times before, hopefully the reports are exaggerated. While we see a return to the popularity of the physical format in music, I hope the bound book will continue in its present form for as long as possible. With the increase of independent book stores (thank you gentrification!), and the support for them by the public and authors alike, I think the future is bright for the continued enabling of my addiction. But what about the eBook?
When this post started out, it was an out and out rant about the eBook. I do feel that the value of the long form is being lessened by the convince and ease to start, discard and move on that a collection of eBooks on a Kindle and its kin give. Amazon's plan to "pay-per-page" is rather scary for me and I would think for authors as well. That idea fundamentally changes the relationship between the story itself and the reader. Some of the best books I've read are tricky to get into, Christopher Priest's The Prestige, Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square and Philip K Dick's The Man In The High Castle, to name but a few. But the reward is the slow reveal as the tale opens up and I've returned to them again and again. For me, there is something special about a book. Whether it is my great-grandfather's collection of Wordsworth, with his notes in the margins and poems in the fly pages, written over a hundred years ago, or my battered copy of Sharpe's Gold, the feeling of holding a book, interacting with it, the race to the turn the page, to find out what happens next, to the dread of it becoming lighter on the right hand side and heavier on the left while the journey plays out, this is part of the experience for me. The moment when a turn of phrase or prose makes you think, reread it, run your finger over the print as you take it in, turn it over and commit it to your heart; that is what a book is to me.
The eBook does hold some interesting possibilities to enable a more interactive experience with the text. To harness the possibilities of the technology and allow for dynamic maps, glossaries, time-lines, the use of footnotes (can you imagine the fun George MacDonald Fraser could have had with a dynamic footnote!) and maybe even author commentaries and the killed darlings. While the future is interesting, the bound book still elicits a magical pull over me. It may sit on the shelf for a while, years maybe, but then comes the time when even a glance at it brings back that memory, that feeling, it comes off the shelf, the dust wisps into the air as you hunt the passage or start a fresh. That special feeling returns and somewhere, in dark recesses of an author's heart far away, there is a flash that makes it all worth while. The form is here to stay, the format may change, but as long as there are books and the stories they contain, I will be there to read them for as long as I can.