Monday, October 10, 2011

Cold, Dead Fingers Dept

Much ink has been wasted on whether music as a predominantly digital format has cost us something precious, and wonderful, and irreplaceable, and why can't I stop crying &c. There have probably been losses and gains. No song ever need vanish from the catalogue, no treasure need be buried unheard, deleted. Physical formats become fun and worthwhile when produced, rather than drably essential. There need never be another CD released with a single page in the jewel case, another exercise in "why did we bother".

Sure, there's too much music to ever listen to it all, but that's like having too much dinner and remembering with a warm glow the cold hard certainty of rationing. I miss the excitement of the record shop, but not the excitement of discovering something new.

But I don't feel the same way about ebooks. I hate them. I genuinely hate them. With music, your relationship is predominantly with what is going in your ear. Yes, you may stare at the cover for Tales From Topographic Oceans by Yes for half an hour while going on a prog journey, but that really is making your own fun at its most innocent, deny that if you like.

The relationship with a book is very different. It's a tactile object relatively unchanged since the Gutenberg press. You've got to hold that thing in front of your face. It's your buddy until you're done with it. A well-thumbed, much read book is like a vile, beloved, drooled on childhood bunny, but you wouldn't buy one of those second-hand unless you had a lot of problems in your life.

Now I sell ebooks, of course I do, because people want them, and while I am sentimental, I am not mental. And I can shove in 50 extra pages that I found down the back of the sofa because it costs very little to do so. Did I think those pages were worth publishing the first time? No. There's something wrong at the heart of that, like the height of the CD era, when filling the disc to the full 74 minutes became paramount. Bloat over art.

I've seen examples of the beautiful work being done in interactive ebooks for children. They depress me. Kids are in a world of their own and we seek ever more to make concrete things that would have lived in their imagination. Any graphic work is dead on screen compared to how it looks on paper.

This is the first time I've felt like this. I love digital media. They free us from clutter, from waste. But I don't think we have to be beholden to gadget manufacturers on books. I don't think we need to enter the dismal Kindle's annual upgrade curve. Books aren't a delivery medium, they're an art form. We forget that at our peril.


Claire Connelly said...

I can't agree more, on every point.

Even worse are the DRMed ebooks, as you just know that at some point one company or another in the chain is going to fail, and your ebook will no longer be readable on any reader.

Sigivald said...


I see your point, to an extent, on art eBooks.

But not on text - especially given how much room my library already takes up.

(I also agree with Claire about DRM, but the best part there is that the most popular DRM systems for text eBooks are ... completely insecure.

It takes like five minutes to decrypt every book on your Kindle or Nook, permanently.

Which is nice.)

And from the consumer point of view, there's a lot to be said for the vastly, vastly reduced cost - and the vastly increased opportunities for the creator to profit from his work while still lowering consumer cost. Everyone wins.

Phill MV said...

I think you're being a grouchy old man.

I love books; I love that all of the ones on my bookshelves are well worn and thumbed through. That there is a history behind all of them. That some of the ones I bought second hand have inscriptions out to grandparents.

My kindle is still immensely more convenient to carry around – especially if you read dense non fiction that typically only gets issued in immense hardcover tomes like I do.

I have such an emotional connection that I'm tempted to purchase hard copies of books I read but… honestly most content I read is pretty disposable. Does it really matter that I want to impress my friends?

I have a hard time with this. On a personal level. Because I love books.

There's no denying that the kindle is a superior user experience, though. It's so much more convenient.

Finally, in regards to your comment re: kid's books, where you see glorified cartoons I see the potential for every book to be a little bit like minecraft - where the only limit IS your imagination.

PeteJ said...

@Phill, there's more to a "superior user experience" than convenience; in fact, I'd put that somewhere near the bottom of any list of attributes ordered by value to me.

There again, I'm a grouchy old man too :)

sleek said...

I kind of felt like you do...I loves me some books, and have a nice shelf full of books, old and new, with some being leather bound volumes over 100 years old...just...beautiful stuff.

I also have several boxes of old comics and magazines aging away.

...but about 3 months ago, I started downloading ebooks and reading them on my phone at lunch...then eventually just using my phone AS a book, reading in bed or at the doctor's waiting room or wherever.

Now I have a 7" android tablet on the way.

The very concept of having a library of thousands of books with me AT ALL TIMES is mind-blowing to me...and, god help us all...I LOVE it.

...and what I have found is that the magic of books is that it doesn't matter if they are printed or electronic or whatever...the pictures that form in your mind are the same, not dependent on resolutions or font choices, (which you can change with an day I may go for Wilde in comic sans...just for the PERVERSION), you live the same story. I have gone from paper book purist to e-book convert.

The other problem with books is that they are physical objects that take up a lot of space, (I have about 6 of those big boxes of comics and live in a 1 bedroom apartment. Bleh.), and get dusty. I find myself cleaning my bookshelves, dusting volumes I haven't opened in years...doing maintenance.

I can see where art books need to be...books...but text? Not so much. Even comics, I want they don't build up MASS and cover my floor.

Yeah, I still love my giant Windsor MacKay volumes...but I don't have them WITH me...but I do have 100 books in my pocket.

Pete Hindle said...

I agree with the original post, on nearly all counts.

Also, I think that eBooks are less convenient than regular books. I don't need to stump up the majority of a hundred pounds/dollars to get started with my book collection; I can just buy a book. Or somebody can give me a book that they have finished - either as a loan or to keep. What will you do with your finished eBooks? You can't give them away. You can't loan them to a friend who might love them. You can only "own" them, in the same way you own other non-physical possessions; as files on a hard drive.

I'm not massively keen on books as a physical object, and I think it's worth keeping your shelves pruned; what you thought was worth keeping a decade ago might have changed (goodbye, Dragonlance trilogies!). While the books contain art, they are not always art, and the form they come in does not automatically become worthy of veneration. I see a lot of people saying how much better their Kindle is; I don't see a lot of people exercising judgement and critical facilities.

hedgemaze said...

I find it hard to be so black-and-white about ebooks. I love physical books immensely, the smell, the feel, being able to flip back and forth, and I have a house full of books and comics stacked everywhere.

But I have rheumatoid arthritis. It's very difficult for me to even hold a book open, and as a result I find myself reading much less often than I want to.

I have never used an ebook, but I can understand why they would be useful to people. Beyond simple portability, I find it hard to censure something that would make books more accessible, easier to hold, with the ability to change font and text size. But I don't see ebooks as replacing books, and I don't think reading ebooks means a lack of love for books. Even if I had an ebook reader, I would always own and love paper books, and I don't think I am alone in thinking that. I think they are just another way to read.

Amelia said...

I think a "Books Not Boys" tote bag may be in order.

Neil Willcox said...

I think a "Books Not Boys" tote bag may be in order.

At least until eBoys become available.

More seriously, the ebook has disentangled* the text-as-commodity** from the book-as-physical-object. I greatly approve of making the text cheap, convenient and widely available, especially authors making their out of print back catalogue available that way***, and making a few pence off it.

I still love books as objects. The question is will this kill books in the way that cars killed the horse and cart, or will it supplant books in the way that photography supplanted painting?

* Or accelerated the disentanglement anyway.
** Text in this case standing for anything one might find in a book.
*** Also weird stuff that didn't really have a print market.

McDuff said...

I can't help but feel that there is something of a "who says we can't have both?" here. I have shelves full of books, even though I have recently made several trips to charity shops to try and divest myself of some of the tonnage. And I continue to purchase physical, dead-tree books both in the form of old and esoteric books (I recently purchased a 100 year old pocket edition of "The Song of Hiawatha" for a pound) and in brand new "gotta read them now" hardbacks.

But that's not what most of my *reading* is.

Why would I buy a paperback copy of a book I'm likely to only read once when I can instead buy the Kindle edition? The majority of literature is disposable, and this is what keeps writers in their money, after all. I can use my Kindle to transfer long-form articles from the web onto a device that suits long-form reading more than a laptop.

Are there problems with ebooks as of the now? Yes. The lack of a physical existence means that they are less lendable, which means they are in some sense more tied to me as a reader and cannot be passed on to others. That's a problem (tied in with DRM). The sales and costs of ebooks are still being hammered out as some publishers still insist on charging hardback rates for ebooks, which is utter and abject nonsense because an ebook is, as you rightly say, a more limited experience. On my Kindle Mary Shelley's Frankenstein looks and feels precisely the same as a new Culture novel by Iain M Banks, which is a loss.

But it's not a loss that bothers me so much, because I wouldn't have a copy of either Frankenstein or of half the Culture novels I own if I didn't have a Kindle, because the ability to say "I would like to read that book* and go "click click* and get it immediately, or to browse through the public domain works and download them to store in a catalogue of "available for long train journeys" gives me access to much more reading material than I had when it was all bound up on paper.

I am not an illiterate or someone for whom reading is a chore, but still, I've read more books on the Kindle platform (I read an entire China Mieville novel on my Blackberry last month) than I did before.

And isn't that, in itself, a good thing?

Vicente L Ruiz said...

Hi there.

I see your point and, in my opinion, like Sigivald, it's quite valid for art eBooks, and illustrated books for kids. Even though I'm also sure there will be artists who can make the most of the digital format for kids (can we consider an illustrated eBook for kids, for instance?)

Having said that, many other points have been raised by other commentators up there. I'll humbly point to another article I found, which defecnds the, shall we say, opposite point of view quite admirably, if I may say so: here it is.

And finally, and funnily, I do have a number of eBooks. A large number of them. And I still have gone and bought paper versions of those I find I like best. Best of both worlds, as McDuff pointed out.

Thanks, John.

wykstrad said...

I saw one article about a year ago that said if you love books, then buying a Kindle is a waste of money and a silly idea, but if you love reading, it's wonderful. To my mind, nothing has summed up the debate better.

As I love both books and reading, I still buy physical copies of books, but the Kindle gives me more freedom to try new stuff out and cull my physical library- rather than buying a crappy $6 Barnes and Noble copy of a public domain book, I can get it for free off of, decide whether or not I like it. If I like it, then I buy a handsomely bound & annotated edition for my bookshelf, and if I don't, then none of my friends need ever know that I wasted 3 months of my life on a copy of Martin Chuzzlewit that Bookman's refuses to buy back.

And there is never a greater moment owning an e-reader than the point where you've used a gift certificate to try out a new fantasy series, become swept up in the narrative, and finish the book dying to know what happens next- so you immediately buy the next volume and continue reading.

Laura said...

I totally agree with you here John. I love books as something physical I can pick up and read. I also love to be able to lend books to friends and get them into new things that way... I must admit I used to feel the same about CDs but now I buy most of my music digitally but I can't see me going that way with ebooks!

K said...

I'm torn. I don't have an e-reader and do have lots of books, and while I would say I prefer books in almost every way, I am getting to the age when I own about as many books as I can fit on the walls of my house. For the past 10 years I've restricted myself to buying books I know I'll reread multiple times, and it's still a problem.

Library books? Yes... but there's something about being able to keep them, isn't there? Many times I've bought books I'd already read as library copies. Also, my tastes are just sufficiently obscure that getting library copies can be hard work.

So if someone gave me an e-reader, I can see myself using it, although I don't think they will ever replicate the paper experience. And as far as I can tell, they are still not safe to read in the bath...

As for "interactive" kids' books: I am not sure they are stories as much as story-based games, much as "choose your own adventure" books had their limitations. I read those with pleasure as a child but I'm glad that wasn't all that was available.

Will B. Minus said...

The only thing I really worry about with ebooks vs. dead tree books is redaction or rewrites. If you buy a book with a piece of scathing prose that someone at a later date takes issue with and has the clout to have changed, there would still exist a physical record or the original intention. With an ebook what is to stop the change being made and then force updated to your reader of choice. The words can be manipulated without your knowledge or approval, and history is forever changed as far as you are aware.

sleek said...


I think the opposite is actually true. Once something is put out digitally, it is out there forever.

It is more likely that you would be able to find an "original" version of a book with banned passages as an e-book than as a print version.

...for instance:Star Wars. They still haven't put out a version that Lucas hasn't fooked with, but because of the torrent sites, I have had the "Original unaltered Trilogy" sitting on my hard-drive for about 5 years...hard copies (DVDs and Blu) don't even exist...unless you have the original Laser disk these were ripped from.

Sigivald said...

Will Minus said: With an ebook what is to stop the change being made and then force updated to your reader of choice.

Copy it off the device, strip the DRM, keep an archived copy.

On a Kindle, at least, that's trivial. My impression is that it's also easy enough on a Nook.

Dharmabum said...

I think the biggest problem that will begin to occur with eReaders is Amazon, and probably others will follow suit, will start their own publishing lines, and produce books that are only available for their reading device. That is a new, and possibly terrifying, form of financial blackmail and censorship if one of your favorite authors becomes sole property of Amazon or B&N and if you do not own a Kindle you are out of luck.

The number of book publishers are dwindling, and yes 'anyone' will be able to create an ebook, but without a vetting process that publishing houses create, who much sh*t will you have to wade through?

But Amazon is using loss-leaders to destroy the publishing industry as surely as WalMart marched through small town America and put thousands of small businesses to their end.

I hope that the print industry never ends, though, because digitizing everything and making them only available through one or two specific platforms will surely reduce accessibility in the long run.

Rich Johnson said...

I took advantage of a special online offer and bought a digital bundle of some B.P.R.D. comics, being a sucker for Mike Mignola's work.

It doesn't compare to having them in book form, though. Convenient enough to log on and read, yes, and undeniably a very good price, but with an actual book I do feel more like I *own* a copy of the artwork. The paperyness of it is somehow such an intrinsic part of the comic art. It may be of course that I'm one of the grumpy old gits.

Anton Nelson said...

epub is a limiting format, if your going to go digital, go really digital, i.e: something like Mag+