Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Artsy-Fartsy Books by the Foot

Photo from Slate.com.

I don’t deny that we are heading into a world of digital books.

This year, I have read more digital books than I ever have, and likely will continue to read more of them. Although I do like a printed book (I must, I have more than a thousand of them) what gets me coming back to certain books again and again are the words, the story, the images that form in my mind as I read what the author has written. It’s these images – not the visceral feel of the book in my hands as the images form in my brain – that I remember. So there will be little lamentation on my part as we move into the digital era – that is if they ever can come up with a legal used ebook marketplace, since most of the books (the physical ones) I buy are used and, thusfar, all of the ebooks I’ve “bought” have been free.

But reading Michael Agresta’s article on what he deems as the future of physical books leaves me a bit cold. Throughout, he writes about the physical appearance of books, how they will evolve and how the artisinal ones – the twee ones with the cutout pages, the hand-illustrated drawings, the accordion-folded ones, the ones printed on enormous maple leaves, etc. – will come to dominate the printed world. He’s likely right. So the printed world, in the future, will likely be dead to me. Here’s what he says:
As paper books become more unusual, some will continue to buy them as collectors’ items, others for the superior sensory experience they afford. There’s reason to think this is happening already: Carl Jung’s Red Book, a facsimile edition featuring hand-painted text and illustrations, sold well in America in 2010 despite its $195 price tag. When readers believe that a book is special in itself, as an object, they can be persuaded to pay more.
Bookshelves will survive in the homes of serious digital-age readers, but their contents will be much more judiciously curated. The next generation of paper books will likely rival the art hanging beside them on the walls for beauty, expense, and “aura”—for better or for worse.
I can buy off on the more heavily curated collections. And I’ll certainly buy off on the for better or worse part because nowhere in his little article does he talk about the readability of these printed wonders. Maybe some of them are wonderfully written. But it’s my sad experience that with most of these artisinal books, the focus beams in so much on the design of the book that the designers and authors, at the end, kinda forget they’re supposed to be telling a good story.

Good story physical books? They’re dinosaurs, according to Agresta:
There’s a whole class of paper books we haven’t discussed yet—the paratextually unremarkable, unimaginatively designed rows of paperbacks and late-edition hardcovers that line most of our shelves. These are headed for the same place most manufactured objects go eventually—the scrapheap.
Maybe I’m exhibiting sour grapes. The only artsy-fartsy books I’m familiar with are the ubiquitous pop-up books which, in my experience, are just more trouble than they’re worth. The writing in them may be excellent, but they’re so expensive and so fragile that you hardly dare read them lest the fall apart like a fragile Japanese kite in your hands. And I have to worry about the gimmickry he describes with bated breath for the coming digital revolution:
Hypertext, embedded video, and other undreamt-of technologies will give rise to new poetic, rhetorical, and narrative possibilities. But a literary culture that has defined itself through paper books for centuries will surely feel the loss as they pass away.
If they add to the story, that’s great. But if they take me off into endless little culdesacs that mire the story down, then they’re little more than distractions. We may yet see purely digital books take advantage of the technology, but not until we have a crop of authors who understand the pitfalls that hyperlinks and embedded video and other gimmickry present to author and reader. Again, I look to DVDs as models. The full movie is there, with extras. But the extras don’t intrude as you’re reading the full story. They supplement, they do not supplant. Books – digital or printed – aren’t meant to be commodities added to or subtracted from just for the sake of some new-fangled technological advancement, like those sold by Books by the Foot. Books ought to tell good stories. End of rant.

1 comment:

carl g said...

There is a middle ground that the author does not really cover. Many publishers are finding that if they spend a little more on design and production that it gives their books a sales bump. So they're doing it (in fact, we're even doing it in some cases). Even very average book consumers have never been treated to better products, and this trend will last for a while yet. I post a link on fb about this a few months ago.