Saturday, 25 June 2011

Limiting our options

This essay’s permanent home is now here:

Limiting our options
Wondering what to do with the e-books

For about twenty-five years, I have been intermittently involving myself in attempts at publishing, most of which have proven to be abortive or unsuccessful. This lack of success is entirely my fault, because I am timid, and timidity is a very poor ally in the publishing world. I suppose the history of my literary and quasi-literary follies must imply some kind of affection for books and what they contain; that I have also spent an inordinate amount of time and energy studying book design and typography should indicate a commitment to the printed form of books as well. But when I come to think of a potential answer to a couple of simple questions – do I like books? and do I like reading? – I realise that I have nothing simple to say. Perhaps this is because I experience written language as I do the consumption of food and drink: as a necessity of life that, of itself, I don’t think about much, but which also involves wanting to prepare things well, and appreciating good things that are well worth consuming. Such a torturous idea, this is; but with a purpose: when I do find myself thinking about food and books, I try to avoid thinking in terms of pleasures, because pleasures have always struck me as being optional, ephemeral things – and I want my food, wine, and literature to be eternal. Not just torturous, but a dour sort of idea as well, and doomed to be disappointing, given that everything is, ultimately, ephemeral; but I’ve never been able to shake a nagging sensation that we ought to be serious about things like cooking dinner and reading about (let’s say) the experience of cooking dinner in Cairo in the early part of the last century. Whereupon I timidly start to chase my tail, because a nice meal in my kitchen or in the prose of Naguib Mahfouz is a pleasure, isn’t it? Isn’t that a good thing in itself? The foolish truth being that I still haven’t managed to figure it out.
These things have been shuffling on and off my mind recently because of two unrelated events: the London Book Fair, which came and went far away from me a couple of months ago; and the fact that I recently came across a good system for consolidating and arranging the various e-books I’ve accumulated over the past two or three years. Book fairs, of course, are required to produce newspaper stories about books, and for many years now the news about ‘the book’ has been that it will soon to give way to something else. Newspapers – in whatever form one happens to encounter them: I come across them via websites – are run by strict dialecticians: there must be a worrisome thesis (publishing is doomed because publishing is all about conventionally-printed books), which leads to an antithesis in which we receive a breath of hope (new technologies are all about creating splendid new opportunities to do things better), whereupon we depart relieved in a happy and fatuous synthesis (the future of publishing will be different because it will use new technology). And of course people should be stimulated into buying something: in this case, gadgets for acquiring, storing, and displaying books published in electronic form, to say nothing of the electronic-format books themselves. As I catalogued and arranged them, I discovered I had more than three hundred of the latter, which suggests first that I don’t mind them, and second that I’m finding them useful. Certain kinds of reference material do lend themselves to circulation in electronic form, particularly books that date quickly or that involve topics I wouldn’t really care to have permanently on my shelves: mainly these are work-related books about computers, electronics, and sundry branches of applied science and electrical engineering. Academic research also suits the relatively ephemeral non-paper approach, as does anything where one usually winds up searching for one bit of information at a time. It’s in the latter category that I start to see problems with the ‘pure’ e-books (those that are published in an e-book format, unlike PDF versions of a printed book): where the publishing format starts to change how we encounter information, and tends to limit our options in terms of how we make and use published material.
Although the distinction between a book and an e-book is likely to fade over time, much as the distinction between mail and e-mail has done, it will always be useful to think of them as fundamentally different things, and not just as different bowls for the same kind of soup. Books have many functions, some of which are strictly practical (in terms of providing access to the book’s content) while others are ontological, with respect to how a society thinks, acts, and remembers. A book is an object: an object with a present context, defined by where we find it and where we read it, which also amounts to a physical linkage between the past and present of all other books; even the most modest book thus comes equipped with the history of the publishing culture to which it belongs. E-books are packages of information, which carry their own kind of history and make their own specific demands on readers and publishers: these sometimes overlap with the physical-cultural meanings of books, but more often they are unique to the emerging medium. The question of design is the first to start troubling me, given all the years I’ve spent preparing to be a book printer in a world where my preferred kind of book printing has all but collapsed. To be less vague: my ‘ideal’ for the form of books is based on design principles articulated in the early to middle decades of the previous century, in a time when we could expect books of all sorts to be printed using a letterpress process. With such a book, just about every aspect of how the reader encounters the text can be designed: the size of the paper, the relationship between the text and the space that surrounds it, the running heads and page numbers – one could go on and on. The latter two aids to navigation make obvious a point that inheres in every aspect of book design: that the design of a book is an act of creative interpretation of the book’s content. The book designer in effect creates the local context of the book: how you read the book has been shaped or conditioned by design decisions made before the book was printed; by the same token, a lack of design decisions, or bad decisions, gets in the way of your attempt to read the book – it wasn’t all paradise in this Eden. With electronic publications, the design choices are radically limited: the context in which you encounter the book is a function of the technology used to deliver it to you, and the designer has very little control over how the material appears on the reader’s screen.
E-books are something like scrolls with indexes: most of them don’t have pages as such, but rather a continuous flow of text that starts when it starts and stops when it stops. A scroll is not a ‘book’, in the front-to-back, pages gathered in signatures, bound and flippable sense of ‘book’, and lends itself not only to a different kind of design, but also to a different kind of writing, a different approach to literature. Many things are possible with a scroll that we gave up long ago on moving to bound-in-boards books; and many other options that we gained over the past thousand-plus years of book culture are closed off. This is not just about the appearance of the published material, but the state of access to it as well. With printed books, if you have a desire to get hold of one, you can walk into a shop and take it off the shelf: no further apparatus is required save the ability to read – and the cash to buy it, or (if you are in a public library) the right to borrow it. Apart from the need to possess a reading device (and to possess the means to keep it running and supplied with content), electronic publishing as it now stands involves a host of restrictions to access and use that were never possible (or at least very difficult) with print publishing. I have quite a few PDF books that have been encrypted such that their content cannot be altered: this is a reasonable means whereby the publishers protect the security of their material; but it also means that I have books that cannot be annotated – books where the publisher has been able to close off the possibility of my making notes in them. And of course we’d do well to keep in mind that with all forms of electronic distribution – be it books, music, or the software on our computers – we do not actually own what we buy: we purchase a limited right of access to the content, but ownership of the digital ‘things in themselves’ is retained by the publishers. This is a limit that could be changed if the laws were changed, and which need not apply if a publisher so decides. But the notion of a book – or of a piece of music or of a photograph or a film or any number of such things – as an ephemeral quantity to be traded and consumed as just one of a host of digital content commodities: this leads us into an unexplored set of relationships between readers, writers, publishers, and the culture as a whole. With this thought, I end up stuck at the tension point in the dialectic: I don’t know where it’s all going, but I can’t help suspecting the newspaper’s optimism is misplaced. That there will be new technology is neither here nor there: there is always some kind of new technology to chase around. That we will let this new technology drive our habits right up to the level of food and books; that we will let it change our culture and ourselves without much noticing what we stand to lose; that we might end up with merely synthetic gains, which we neither wanted nor needed – these thoughts keep shuffling in and out of my head, as the rainy season brings an old pond back up to the surface of my garden, as the London Book Fair fades from the newspaper’s memory, and as I wonder what to do with all those e-books I’ve now put into order and still have yet to read.