"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

What’s Old is New

I love books. Love them as objects. I want to hold them, sometimes mark them up with a pen, dog-ear the pages. I like to look at them on my shelves at home. I don’t own a Kindle or a Nook but I don’t have any beef with them either. For some people they make all the sense in the world. I think you can like both formats. But this piece by Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books gave me a new appreciation for E-books:

Literature is made up of words. They can be spoken or written. If spoken, volume and speed and accent can vary. If written, the words can appear in this or that type-face on any material, with any impagination. Joyce is as much Joyce in Baskerville as in Times New Roman. And we can read these words at any speed, interrupt our reading as frequently as we choose. Somebody who reads Ulysses in two weeks hasn’t read it any more or less than someone who reads it in three months, or three years.

Only the sequence of the words must remain inviolate. We can change everything about a text but the words themselves and the order they appear in. The literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception, or any physical contact with a material object (even less in the “possession” of handsome masterpieces lined up on our bookshelves), but in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end. More than any other art form it is pure mental material, as close as one can get to thought itself. Memorized, a poem is as surely a piece of literature in our minds as it is on the page. If we say the words in sequence, even silently without opening our mouths, then we have had a literary experience—perhaps even a more intense one than a reading from the page. It’s true that our owning the object—War and Peace or Moby Dick—and organizing these and other classics according to chronology and nation of origin will give us an illusion of control: as if we had now “acquired” and “digested” and “placed” a piece of culture. Perhaps that is what people are attached to. But in fact we all know that once the sequence of words is over and the book closed what actually remains in our possession is very difficult, wonderfully difficult to pin down, a richness (or sometimes irritation) that has nothing to do with the heavy block of paper on our shelves.

The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the 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.

[Photo Credit: Digital Journal]


1 glennstout   ~  Feb 16, 2012 2:32 pm

Except for one thing. Many, many many publishers produce the text for contemporary e-books from Word files, not the same text files that hard copy print books are created from - all for reasons of economy. As a result, most ebooks are created not from the fully the edited copy of what the author intended/agreed to be published, and as a result are often full of errors both large (factual that were not caught early in the editorial process) and small (misspellings, etc.). Most aquthors, in fact, never have an opportunity to edit the ebook version. Sorry Parks, but in most ebooks the order of the words is not inviolate - they are not the same as what was intended for the printed page and to think otherwise is uninformed and naive.

2 Shaun P.   ~  Feb 16, 2012 2:49 pm

I much prefer reading a paper book to a book on an e reader. I figure I put my eyes through hours and hours of reading text on a digital display for work, why not let my eyes relax with paper when I can? I don't know what any research says about which is worse, but that's how I feel.

I have read a couple of books via the Kindle app on my phone, though, and its been an enjoyable experience. Primarily because my phone never gets as heavy or awkward to hold, especially when lying down, or to carry around, as (say) a 600 page hardcover book. The app lacks the enjoyment of using one of the paper bookmarks one of the kids made me, but it also never loses my place - or the bookmark itself.

I can't imagine ever foregoing paper books entirely, if only because I love to look at all my book shelves and book cases lined with books. But it sure is convenient to not have to lug around a giant tome or a thick paperback sometimes.

3 Shaun P.   ~  Feb 16, 2012 2:55 pm

[1] That's very interesting. I imagine there are all sorts of issues for authors and publishers (and their copyright lawyers) when converting a book to e format.

One thing I do love about an e-book - you can't ruin it. I feel sad when even a tiny bit of one page corner is bent. I can't imagine ever writing in the margins of a book, or not taking great care to make sure the cover is as pristine as I can keep it, or dog earing a page to keep my place. I can't explain it, but there you go. My brother is the same way, so maybe it was something our folks pushed on us as kids? I don't know.

I had a horrible time in law school, when you are all but forced to highlight text and (worse) write notes all over the margins while you read. It still bothers me, a little bit.

4 Dimelo   ~  Feb 16, 2012 3:14 pm

the author of the article makes a good point though - if people are still reading literature, learning from it, and enjoying it, who cares where the words are? i know some people are concerned with losing the notes in the margins, but our habits and technologies will adapt to that. like you might not borrow a book from the library and find someone's notes in it, but you might google a book and find someone's commentary on a blog post.

5 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 16, 2012 3:18 pm

1) Wow, didn't know that. Good information.

6 rbj   ~  Feb 16, 2012 3:24 pm

My 78 y.o. dad loves his Nook, (and iPad) but he keeps his cellphone off. Me, I love physical books, but also have my TouchPad on every evening.

7 Chyll Will   ~  Feb 16, 2012 3:34 pm

A book is a little more reliable and easier to deal with for the simple facts that they are not as expensive, so therefore less of a attraction to thieves or idiots, plus they require a lot less power to operate and maintain. As far as portability is concerned, well how many books am I gonna read on the train at one time?

8 Ara Just Fair   ~  Feb 16, 2012 4:32 pm

My wife got me a nook for Christmas and I am digging it. My lone gripe is not seeing the thickness/thinness of pages I have read and how much more I have to go before finishing.

9 Capital Yank   ~  Feb 16, 2012 4:45 pm

There's something more tangible in actually turning the pages of a book; I miss the tactile sensation of page between fingers when using an e-reader. And I really like being able to flip back and forth between pages in a book, being able to keep my place with a finger so I can re-read a description or dialogue five pages back. Plus, there's no used book store for e-readers. No browsing through bookshelves filled with classic authors and grabbing a 99¢ paperback with stiffened covers, tattered corners, and pages perfectly yellowed by years of good use. That said, I think each medium has its pros and cons.

10 The Hawk   ~  Feb 16, 2012 5:21 pm

I think the guy overstates the shit out of it at the end there. It's a very intellectual argument, almost abstract.

I don't really think it's a big deal wither way, except books have a huge, huge advantage over digital media in that they can be easily and privately lent to friends. That's one of my favorite things about books. That and finding them on someone's stoop. How great is that? I'm reading one of those now.

11 joejoejoe   ~  Feb 17, 2012 1:28 am

[10] It's true, you don't own a book on an e-reader, you own a book license. Ten years from now it is doubtful that you will have the same electronic device and format and will have to repurchase the same books. There are advantages to having quick access to digital information but also some negatives related to the transience of the data format and the lack of true ownership of the actual content.

12 monkeypants   ~  Feb 17, 2012 8:43 am

Only the sequence of the words must remain inviolate. We can change everything about a text but the words themselves and the order they appear in.

This is of course false, as anyone who has read an illuminated medieval manuscript or a Doctor Seuss book or an e.e. cummings poem or an inscription.

Often the form (the material, the font, the decoration) are inseperable from the "pure" literary content (the words in a given order, assuming there is only one order).

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