E-Books and Aesthetics

The response that a bibliophile such as myself experiences toward the rising prominence of e-books is one of definite unease.  There appears, as best I can tell, to be a kind of threat embedded in the sales pitch of the e-book.  “This product,” it proposes, “will replace your books.” “You can store all of them in one small spot.” “You won’t need paper books anymore.”  The shiny rhetoric of e-book sales suggests, in a lurking and ominous way, that the new convenience of the e-book will supplant the printed book from its hallowed place in society; that Google will overthrow the library system; that within a generation children will ask what a paper book is in the same way that today children ask what LPs are.  And the twist of the dagger is brought about by the vague, dismissive and impressive sounding intimation that paper books are a “thing of the past.”  By contrast, the owners of e-book readers can posture themselves as the flag bearers of the future.

It’s safe to say that I’m not excited about this future.

Of course, there is a kind of precedent for this threat.  After all, has not the computer replaced the typewriter? Hasn’t indoor plumbing given way to outhouses? Haven’t we watched advances in media storage on other platforms? Did not Betamax give way to VHS? And VHS to DVD? And DVD to Blu-ray? And isn’t Blu-ray’s death knell sounded by the rise of downloadable media?  To the advocates and evangelists of e-books, all these examples set a powerful trend for the future of reading.  To many, the e-book appears perfectly poised to replace the printed book.

Now, is it possible that I’m just one of those people who attends the local renaissance festival because I think that the past was somehow a brighter, better place than the present?  Am I a bit of a nerdy, history loving nut-job? Do I prefer printed books because I’m nostalgic?  Am I afraid of the future? I don’t think so.  I’m very happy to live in a world with household plumbing.  I’m grateful that I don’t have to do my own butchering or feed and stable a horse every time I get home from work.  And there is no doubt in my mind that technological advances have improved our ability to share and transmit information.  As I think right now I am using a powerful computer to assist me as I process my thoughts.  I don’t feel that I’ve lost something inherently valuable in moving on from the IBM typewriter which I used for my very first assignments back in high school.  I think, quite the contrary, that I’ve gained something.  I like my high speed processor and HD monitor very much, thank you.

And yet, I propose that there are tangible and practical reasons for the preservation—perhaps, at this point, the conservation—of print.  And the primary reason why I think print should be preserved is aesthetic.  I believe that printed books are beautiful, and that e-books are not.  Consider the printed book.  It is the apex of a craft; it is the concentration of knowledge, uniquely font-ed, laboriously printed and painstakingly assembled.  It is the transmission of the thoughts of one human being (sometimes more) to another, passed on by the attentive hands of publishers and bookbinders.  And while the crafting of books has gone from the extraordinarily laborious (vellum and homemade ink and illuminations) to the more mundane (paper and industrial ink), the process is not less marvelous.

Other bibliophiles like myself know precisely what I’m talking about, and if you don’t know if you’re a bibliophile, there’s a simple test.  Take the book you are currently reading, and if you haven’t done it already, open it in the middle and smell the spine.  Stuff your face between the pages and take a great big whiff of the glue and paper and ink in all their harmonious bouquet.  If that smell excites you (as it does me), then you’re a bibliophile, and like me you understand implicitly that there is something horribly missing in an e-book.  It’s an experience not unlike ordering your favorite dish from a new restaurant and discovering while you eat it that it’s not quite right, that it’s missing a key ingredient, that without the ingredient you’ll never be satisfied.  There is a fundamentally aesthetic quality to the consumption of books that cannot be replicated by the intangible e-book.  It goes from the feel of the cover to the quality of the paper to the smell of the ink.  It’s the way the font hits your eyes and the spacing of the lines on the pages.  It’s the pleasure of watching your bookmark make its way through the length of a book—inching toward the completion.  After all, who gets excited about a number at the top of a screen that says 35 of 240? But one gets a thrill watching the bookmark’s slow journey through the pages.

These various aesthetic tangibilities are the source of a book’s individuality.  And, for the bibliophile, books are as varied as people; each encounter is a new experience, tactile and mental alike.  And there is something about the terrible, flattening sameness of the e-book that makes my very soul recoil in horror—as if someone suggested to me that I trade all of my real, flesh and blood friendships for digital ones, praising the fact that all personality had been stripped of the relationships as a way to ‘get at the heart of the person’. Shudder.

But there’s more of course.  I remember opening a library book once and finding on the top inside corner the name of a professor I knew who had donated a large part of his personal library to the college’s library.  As I read through the pages I had the marvelous experience of reading his notes and jottings in the margins of the book.  Here was a piece, not merely of information, but of history itself.  Here I interacted not only with the mind of the author, but also with the mind of my professor.  And the experience prompted a realization about the nature of knowledge and books themselves.  Reading that book, I was a member of the great relay of knowledge where information is handed on (as it has done for thousands of years now) from one to another through books.  Printed books connect one powerfully with the past.

But beyond even aesthetics and history there are other reasons for conserving the printed book, one of which is that the printed book preserves a kind of thinking which is today becoming scarce.  And the thinking of which I speak is a contemplative and patient submission to the content of a book.  In a 2008 Atlantic Monthly article entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” author Nicholas Carr supposes that the immediacy and terse nature of internet information has foreshortened our ability for sustained thought.  In other words, because of “Google” (as a metonym for the internet experience as a whole) we are thinking differently, less patiently, and more tersely.  And reading his article I agreed wholeheartedly that my ability to invest myself in sustained literature is cramped by the impatience that the internet has taught me.  In other words, as our ability and skill at consuming mass media increases, our aptitude for contemplation has rapidly diminished.  To put this yet another way, digital media makes lazy reading possible, and real reading can never be lazy.

The act of really reading a book, especially a book which contains at its centre a thesis about Something, is the act of being confronted with another mind, of submitting to that mind’s thoughts for the duration of the book, and then of evaluating the content based on its own merits.  In short, a book is a solemn confrontation with the codified knowledge of a real other, and before we can truly be masters of books we must become their subjects and allow them to act upon us.  (For more on this, please read here.) By contrast, I think that the digitization of books encourages a kind of false mastery over the book; the force of the digital mentality—the googlization of our minds—short circuits this hallowed intellectual process.  And this is because books in e-form become ‘just another media’, another thing we can Google, another thing to which we are encouraged to apply ‘Google’ thinking and not patient contemplation.  We are tempted (especially if you are reading for information and not primarily for pleasure) to search it for the sections one requires, then take those sections and ignore the rest.  Rather than wrestling with the whole, we are encouraged to plunder its parts.  And in this way, the printed book preserves some of the integrity of our increasingly scattered thoughts.

A final comment regarding the implied rhetoric of the e-book sales pitch is in order, because the e-book proponent presents the e-book as an advance over the printed book.  It is not, however, an advance; it is merely different.  Earlier I mentioned several items in recent history that have become obsolete—the VHS, the typewriter, and outhouses.  Each of these were supplanted by genuine advances.  The arrival of the DVD, and now Blu-Ray, are genuine improvements upon the VHS.  The PC is better than the typewriter.  And indoor plumbing is better than an outhouse.  These changes are truly advances over the former things.

But consider for a moment some other examples that were presented to the world as advances.  When the microwave oven became a household item, the advertisements claimed that this invention would revolutionize cooking—that the stove would become irrelevant in the home.  But people realized the value (aesthetically, I might add) of really cooked food.  The microwave was different, but not necessarily an advance.  It was the same with the synthesizer, which was supposed to replace instruments, and for a time all one heard on the radio were synthesizers.  And yet people valued the sound (aesthetic, once again) and skill of instrumentalists.  A synthesizer was different, but not an advance.  And more recently, auto-tune has seen the same ascendance, threatening in some ways to replace singing.  Ah, but rising against the tide of auto-tune comes a television show like “Sing Off”—a show all about a capella singing, once again a kind of patient aesthetic on display.  Auto-tune also was not really an advance, but merely a difference.

(Curiously, there is one place where a difference which is not an advance has nearly wiped out something good, and that is letter writing.  And I sincerely hope that you can see that the email is no replacement for the letter because it is in no way an advance over the letter.  It is, however, different.  To receive a tangible letter, something that someone else crafted by hand, is a powerful and touching experience that cannot be replaced by the impersonal, intangible, terse, and businesslike email.  We have lost something in the expedience of email, something of anticipation, something of personality, something altogether good, which will be difficult to recover.)

The e-book is different, but it is not an advance.  It is not poised to replace the book because, I believe, there is an irreplaceably aesthetic quality, an historical quality, and a mandate of contemplative thought embedded in printed books.  And as our world becomes increasingly digitized, it becomes increasingly imperative that we seize upon the value of real things—real friends, real relationships, and real books.  Will the e-book play an important part in the future of information? Sure—the microwave, synthesizer, and (perhaps) even auto-tune will remain part of the toolkits of kitchens, bands and singers.  It will be in some ways a practical and useful tool.  But let us not listen to the rhetoric that would have us think it is a tool that replaces all the other tools, like the infomercial that promises to provide you with the last tool you’ll ever need.  So turn off your computer (or at least go into another room), sit in a comfy chair, get yourself a cup of tea and pick up a book.  Feel its weight in your hand.  Consider, for a moment, the craft that was employed to make it.  Run your finger down the spine of the book.  Open, take a deep whiff, and then embark on the unforgettable journey that begins on that first, glorious page.

7 comments on “E-Books and Aesthetics

  1. Andrew says:

    Interesting. Did you attend this year’s Laing lectures? If not you should listen to them (a process I can facilitate, as I have purchased them).

    I agree; the e-book is different. But it is also good. I thought I would miss all those aesthetic qualities of books more than I actually have. I find the percentage bar to be as pleasurable to watch as a bookmark, and the feel of the Kindle as enjoyable as that of a book. But I also still read plenty of ‘real’ books and continue to buy them.

    Where I agree with you wholeheartedly is that a generation raised on e-books, who treat bound books as we do LP’s, will likely treat them very differently. However, as long as books are written to be read as a whole, no e-book will be able to entirely turn the reading population into vile looters and pillagers of all things book-ly.

    • Joe White says:

      Also, another useful application for the kindle is people who travel and don’t want the added weight of multiple books.

      • jmichaelrios says:

        Well, I’m not really concerned with the e-book’s usefulness. It’s obviously useful. I’m just not convinced that it’s all that good, or at least ‘good’ in the sense that all expedient things are considered good. Sometimes slow and heavy is better.

        And that’s not to say that I don’t think digital reference works aren’t a godsend–I do! It’s just that they can’t, and shouldn’t, replace printed books.

  2. Joe White says:

    Nice post! Apparently I did subscribe a while ago….but hadnt gotten one in my inbox till now (maybe they went to spam). Anyway….like it!

  3. Josh Aderholdt says:

    You make very good points! As an audiobook “reader” I thought it was interesting that you left this technological advance out.

    I know that I will not get an e-book (if ever) until I am able to check books out from the local library on it, a feature that is not currently available.

    To comment on the web and critical thinking, I would whole heartily agree with you. A student worker of mine commented on how he and a classmate were having a discussion on having to remember facts and other information. His classmate stated that he should not have to remember as much information because everything was available to him on his internet enabled phone. The internet was his “external hard drive”.

  4. As someone who works for a company that sells electronic books for the purpose of Bible study, I agree with you. I agree with you that though e-books are useful, “useful” shouldn’t be the only consideration. I also agree that the rhetoric about e-books is overblown, and they will never replace print books.

    The sorts of e-books that Amazon sells have put the company I work for, Logos, in an interesting position. We sell largely biblical and theological reference works for more than Amazon sells them because we have an army of people who go through the books we sell and “tag” them – they turn biblical references, and even references to other books that we sell, into live links so that people can organize their study more easily. People can buy an e-book version of a Bible commentary from Amazon much cheaper than the version we sell, but from our perspective ours is more valuable. It will be interesting to see whether people recognize that increase in value and pay for it or just decide to go as cheap as possible.

    The more e-books I’ve gotten (and I don’t have an e-book reader, but I have many in my Logos account), the more I have recognized a change in how I view print books. That change is illustrated by the following example: On a recent trip to the used book store, I sold a bunch of reference books (I have them on my computer now and they don’t have to take up shelf space), but I bought a nice Library of America edition of Flannery O’Connor’s collected stories.

  5. disfrontman says:

    There is a major shift in the publishing world that e-books are facilitating, one analogous to the invention of the Alesis ADAT in the early 1990’s: the rapid democratization of an art form.

    Prior to the release of the ADAT recording system, recording artists wanting to release professionally engineered albums had to use very expensive, high maintenance analog tape machines or even more expensive digital recorders, most of which were under the control of large studios beholden to major recording companies.

    Along came the ADAT, which allowed artists to record 48 channel recordings for about 20x less money, and suddenly everyone wanted their own home recording studio. This was potentially a game-changer for artists, in that there were fewer limits on what might be tried creatively. In a professional studio, where money is burned @ $100-200/hour, taking risks on “what if” ideas was expensive. In a home studio, the clock means nothing.

    That revolution (now fueled by nearly limitless CPU power for audio engineering in modern CPUs) coupled with the new rules of digital music distribution has led us to a place where physical packaging is unnecessary, and where independent artists have as much exposure to a global marketplace as those signed to a major label.

    So it is with e-books. Amazon’s distribution system is incredible for emerging writers. 70% royalties with zero production costs, warehousing fees, or credit card merchant accounts. I recently read an account of a woman who wrote a fiction novel that broke the NYT Top 20 list. Her earnings after one year? She hadn’t even recouped the $50k advance her publisher gave her. She estimates that if she were to write a NYT Top 20 novel every year, she’d live at less than $10k over the official US federal poverty line for her family. Another writer, with no book deal whatsoever, saw her breakout novel earn her $130k CASH from Amazon as an independent author, with no advance to pay back.

    Today’s publishing houses, just like today’s record labels, are being pared down to their essential functions: editorial improvement and marketing of their artist’s work. Gone are the days where they controlled, in the words of Marx, the “means of production.” Everyone can get on iTunes. My band’s album is there. Anyone can get an e-book published on Amazon.

    People still love vinyl albums. They are visually impressive and exude a lot of nostalgic mojo. That’s where books are headed. I love them, BTW. No decor impresses me more than wall-to-wall shelves stocked with leather-spined reference works. The Romans began compiling scrolls into codexes just after the First Century ACE, so the book as we know it has been the dominant physical package for long-form writings for nearly two millennia. That’s a pretty long run. They won’t go away, but they might be relegated to niche applications or pure nostalgia. With lower demand and higher production costs, I think the prices of physical books will rise over time.

    One final word: the advances in e-ink have been amazing to me. I own the cheapest no-frills $79. Kindle. Reading it outside under direct noonday sun is a joy. Our family has an iPad, which is a fantastic media delivery device, but for reading the Kindle absolutely spanks it. The next generation of e-ink will approach “retina” level resolutions, and at that point it will be visually indistinguishable from physical paper and ink. Only the delight of turning the page and feeling the texture of the paper and the weight of it will be lost. That’s the price that will have to be paid for the ability to carry 1,000 books in one hand.

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