First, read this article entitled “Are eBooks the Death Knell of Authorial Greatness?”.
Second, “pbooks”?!?!?! Is that a thing? I’ve never seen that phrase before, but I love it! Well, part of me loves it, because I think it’s funny. The other part of me thinks that we don’t need two categories of books (pbooks and ebooks) as if physical and digital are equal. Books are books and ebooks need their own title because they are a derivative form of books (feel free to respond in the comments, but keep it friendly; we’re all book lovers here!)
Third, this article articulates something that people been talking around for a while, but don’t always have the vocabulary to express it quite so lucidly. I hear people all the time professing their love for the ‘tactile’ nature of books and their reluctance to lose that. As a book historian, I appreciate hearing most readers readily accept, and proclaim, that the container matters to the reading experience. Books are printed on all sorts of different qualities and types of paper. Fonts are chosen very specifically. Binding is crucial to engagement with the text (think about the assumptions you make about a leather-bound edition versus a paperback). And, yes, of course cover design is vital. In the publishing world, all of these different aspects of the book are carefully debated and chosen. They are the things that people are referring to when they say that they like the way a book ‘feels’. And, in my opinion, all of these components are what makes the physical form of a book a work of art. Ebook editions, however, are all identical. At least within a device. An ebook might look different on a Kobo, iPad, or Nook, but every ebook on an iPad, for example, looks basically the same. I’ve been wondering when publishers will start to use the technology to distinguish their books. Will they start to shade the paper a bit? Format fonts? Try to create art and design within the technology? I don’t know. But I can’t wait for the day when I can start reading an ebook on the cover rather than the first text page. It drives me nuts to only ever see the small thumbnail cover on my ebook shelf, when I double-click I want to see a full size cover. And don’t get me started about the lack of dust jackets or back covers. Publishers (app developers?) take note.
Finally, this article is fascinating because it highlights the connection between the tactile and memory, and places that connection into the context of literary tradition. I was just thinking the other day about a book I read on my e-reader. I had been excited to order a digital advanced reading copy of a book by one of my favorite authors, but I can’t remember the end of the story. Seriously. I just read it a few weeks ago and it’s already fading from memory. I can remember almost every book I’ve ever read. And if I own it, I can tell you where it is on my bookshelves. Most bibliophiles can. But I’m already forgetting a new book?!?! By one of my favorite authors!?!? Terrible. As much as I love having access to the new and the not-yet-published, I do agree with some of Rich’s claims from the article. I never flip through my old ebooks. I rarely remember to recommend the books I’ve read digitally. And yes yes! The physical books surrounding my desk are all little monuments to themselves. Even if I haven’t read a book for years, every time I see it, the memory of reading is reinforced and the story stays fresh in my mind.
I do believe that authorial greatness can happen on any platform. But is the physical necessary to keep a book in the public’s memory long enough for it to be recognized as great? I guess we’ll see. Nevertheless, there are a lot of amazing authors writing right now. I’m glad we have shelves full of their books to reminds us of that.