|You needn't be rich to collect books. These are from the Peter Pauper Press.|
A recent post and comments on Books in Northport (don't miss the comments!) focused on the effect of rising real estate values on urban bookstores, a topic raised by Andrew Laties. Everyone knows, however—and I mean everyone in this country, not just everyone in the business--that rent is only one of many concerns facing bricks-and-mortar booksellers, as those of us with a physical street presence are called. The rapidly changing environment of publishing and bookselling, including online publishing, online buying and selling, e-books, e-readers, “clouds” and all the rest, has got everyone guessing and no one knowing for sure which way to jump.
I’m not alone in my love for printed books, and I’m far from alone in having expressed the reasons I remain loyalty to the old form but today I want to take another look at e-books, from a different and narrower perspective, because while advocates for and defenders of their respective preferences have advanced arguments in the e-book vs. print book debate dealing with issues of convenience, cost (both personal and environmental), and readability, Tim Parks has turned the debate in a new direction. His claim, the one I want to examine, is that that e-book offers a purer literary experience.
Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.
Weren’t there perhaps specific pleasures when reading on parchment scroll that we know nothing of and have lived happily without? Certainly there were those who lamented the loss of calligraphy when the printing press made type impersonal. There were some who believed that serious readers would always prefer serious books to be copied by hand.
Indeed, says Parks, until e-books came along, every age--with each successive “word-delivery system,” if you will--offered different sorts of “fetishistic gratification” (the former phrase in quotation marks is not one Parks uses; the latter is), and only now can we free ourselves from these physical distractions to meet literature in pure form. As I say, this is a serious argument, deserving of serious consideration. If you have the time and inclination, follow the link and read his position in full. It’s worth the time.
Not surprisingly, there was immediate reaction. One bookstore owner, Bill Petrocelli, predictably (but is “predictably” always “wrongly”?) challenged the Parks view, reminding readers that the fact that e-books don’t burn (a point Parks had made) is not necessarily in their favor. He was quoted in the trade e-newsletter "Shelf Awareness" as follows:
The e-book burners of the future won't have to round up all of the copies and put on them on a big pyre. They could achieve the same thing with the push of a button.
I am more than sympathetic to Petrocelli’s concern. I certainly don’t want my books somewhere in a “cloud,” where they can be turned off by some remote master switch at any moment. He has much more to say, also, which you can read here. All of Petrocelli’s are serious concerns. He does not, however, provide a direct answer to the purity question posed by Tim Parks, so let’s go back to that and then afterward see whether the two concerns can be addressed together or whether they cancel each other out.
First, I want to question the alleged “purity” of the e-book reading experience, and secondly I want to examine the general desirability of “pure” experience, divorced from sensual considerations.
Does reading a book on an electronic device, be it cell phone, tablet, or large computer screen, deliver an experience free of “fetishistic gratification”? After all, I can’t be trying to impress people by the dust jacket on my book if it isn’t a book I’m holding and they can’t see a title. There’s no way interior decorating can come into play, either: the books I read (were I to read on an e-reader, which I don’t) cannot be lined up on shelves to impress visitors to my home. So is Tim Parks correct in saying that we have left the distracting sensual element behind with with the "austerity" of e-readers?
Reports from the e-reading public seem to suggest otherwise. A more “’paperlike’ reading experience” is touted as a plus for some models. People with e-readers are eager to talk about the quality of the lighted screen, the background color, the “smoothness” of use. Two owners of the devices have insisted on showing me "books I've read," which they did by showing me a a lineup of titled book icons on their electronic screens. (I'm not making that up. Somehow they seemed to think the icons provided more evidence than if they had simply told me, in spoken words, what they'd been reading.) E-readers do not dispense with fonts, either; they simply make it possible (as Parks admits) for the reader to adjust and alter the font at will. And what about all those distracting extras like hyperlinks and such? Don’t those rather leave the “pure” text behind? Isn’t it a bit like watching a movie on DVD with the director’s voice talking over the dialogue in every scene as he explains how the scene was shot and how he got the actors to give the performances as they did? Is that a purer film experience? The question I’m asking here, in line with the argument made by Parks, isn’t whether or not you should want or enjoy the extras (because they're a bit like footnotes, after all, and you don't have to bother with them) but if the e-reading experience is “purer,” as he claims.
Isn’t it obvious that the sensuous has not been eliminated from the e-reading experience but only homogenized so that each book’s reading “feel” is like the one before and the one to follow? Haven't a series and variety of objects simply been replaced with one sleek, modern one? What would it mean to eliminate all material objects from the reading experience? If you could somehow “download” a “book” (text, if you will) directly into your brain, would that be a “pure experience”? Maybe it would be. Maybe that is the dream that many hope will be realized in the future of reading. I wonder how many old-fashioned booklovers feel the desire for such an experience.
I’d like to change the subject slightly, for reasons of analogy. For many people, “meeting” strangers on the Internet is a freeing experience, precisely because they can meet mind to mind and leave distracting bodies out of the equation. One could, I suppose, make the argument that a relationship thus formed provides—or at least has the potential to provide--pure interpersonal experience. Individuals can exchange opinions without even knowing one another’s gender, much less their respective ages or other physical qualities. If an exchange of views is conducted in such a manner, does it constitute a relationship? A pure relationship? The literary experience, says Parks, is purely mental and exists “in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end.” Nothing else. Is the experience of love or friendship, in its purest form, nothing more than the meeting of two minds?
Denigration of the material world is at least as old as Plato, who divided existence into two realms and saw earthly objects as degraded versions of pure heavenly forms. To my way of thinking, such disdain for our material world, the only one we know and the one that is, therefore, the ground of our every experience, is nothing short of reprehensible ingratitude. I love to see a smile on a friend’s face or to take a friend’s hand in sympathy.
|Beautiful new paperback|
|Two new hardcover novels with dust jackets--beautiful in every way!|