I have no desire to rehash arguments made by many others, in and out of publishing, or who have published with big or small press, about the good and the bad of e-books. Instead, I offer some observations from Teleread (e-books continue to show an increase in sales and that, as a form, books are undergoing changes – thank you, Chris Meadows and Paul Biba for the links) and The Digital Reader.
Yesterday, I went to Porter Square Bookstore to attend a reading by Tom Perotta (The Leftovers). I am a fan of Perotta’s (I had some reviews from Goodreads that I haven’t yet reproduced here. I managed to repost my essay on Perotta’s Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher.) While self-contained (it was one about two men, one of whom reaches out to the other to provide comfort), it did not seem too compelling to me. Instead, I found the book jacket description to be more interesting: a lot of people vanish (Rapture style). How do the people who are left behind cope (in the absence of an explanation as to why the vanishing happened?)
There were not many questions about his books, per se. There were two involving the profit motive: one person asked if it was any easier to get a second book published. Another asked if he now writes with an eye to screen adaptations. For the latter, Perotta noted that, after Election, the movie, was released, Hollywood seemed excited by the prospects of his College Joe. The book disappointed that crowd in that it was not the slapstick, raunchy comedy people were expecting. As for Little Children, Perotta would have marked that as one of the least likely books to be adapted (an ensemble piece, with a plot about a child molester). The director, however, really wanted it made.
To tie it into this post: One woman asked Perotta how he thought about ebooks, whether he feels they provide an opportunity or if he sees it as a threat. Perotta, like in his books, seemed to give a fair answer. He acknowledged that there are opportunities for authors: new authors can be published, while established authors will never go out of print. His tone, posture, and rushed ending to that statement suggested to me that he understood the virtues of ebooks rationally, he did in fact feel threatened. He did not rail against ebooks. He realized that the medium is undergoing a transition; in the short term, he is satisfied that there is a place for books. His evidence? He gave his reading in a bookstore, which is acting as a forum for readers and authors to interact. More emphasis was given to the fact that he was comfortable in the publishing world. He grew up reading words on paper, and that’s his comfort level. It seems his point is that paper book readers have a culture, and that e-book readers will eventually form a different sort of culture from the one he has known.
I think our current conception of e-books is actually limited, to some extent, by the adoption of the Kindle. The Kindle is a translation of paper to screen. A number of features mimic what people can do with paper (marking pages, writing notes) while improving on others (such as whole book search, storing large collections of titles). But the e-ink technology (in the current black/white, slow screen refresh state) lends itself to be treated like a book.
With the iPad and NookColor, we are beginning to see reshaping of content to fit the color screen of a portable computer. The popularity of the Kindle may have stemmed from its familiarity to the printed word. Sooner or later, e-books will diverge from this current form (book like presentation), turning into slick interactive, multifaceted presentations (probably some hybrid wiki-page/HTML5/video/music extravaganza). We are already seeing that in the Dr. Suess books being converted to iPad and Android apps. It is ironic in that many have tried to expand on the book form (think Griffin and Sabine books, and the Dragonology series) only to bypass it altogether.
I think what is lost in attacks and defense of ebooks is the concept of technology creating culture. Neil Postman, Mark Helprin, and Nicholas Carr have made these points. Technology is neutral in the sense that humans can decide on its immediate use. We also have the ability to select among a great number of tools. However, the authors I cited here make compelling arguments that we are also shaped by our tools. We may not select the proper tool (if we are holding a hammer, it won’t help us with set-screws.) And tools can limit how we approach a task (hence the cliche of, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) They take the argument a step further; technologies that alter language can literally alter how we think.
I don’t think it is controversial to say that humans are generally intellectually adaptable. Postman et al. argue that we are much more malleable than assumed, and to our detriment. Online activity in the mobile age, googling, clicking links, video-centric delivery, and short texts (shorthand, abbreviations, two-sentence paragraphs) tend to promote shallow scanning. One might counter that, if a person is inclined, he will delve deeper. Postman et al. counter, no, they won’t. The nature of Internet presentation, they argue, will make it less likely for people to ruminate, to read deeply, and to think in the silence of their own heads. It is easier to follow the next link.
Of the three, I think Postman gave a framework for dealing with technology. In both Amusing Ourselves to Death and Conscientious Objections, he argues that new technology is here to stay (at the time, he was writing about the pervasiveness of television), and we need to be aware that all such communication altering technologies has the capacity to reshape the way we think. We must take care to exploit its virtues while limiting its disadvantages. In other words, control the technology lest it controls us. What was interesting is that he argued that TV isn’t bad because it provides salacious entertainment. TV is most pernicious when it aspires to teach and to serve as a forum public discourse.
Not just television, but effective television presentation, comes with visual excitement and change. This is the opposite of the arguments one can develop in excruciating detail in a book. One can compare a book (even better, read many books) on global warming to an Al Gore movie or to inane 5-minute segments in television news. Postman would simply prefer that we realize that a 5-minute segment is the worst way of dealing with complex arguments. It simply isn’t enough, especially given the scientific literature on the subject matter. What TV is suited for, Postman notes, is an entertaining 5 minute segment. Something to make you laugh or cry and enjoy; something with impact, translatable into sensational imagery – sound is no longer enough. Instead, we are concluding that audio-visual presentations (whether on TV or in Youtube videos) comprise the main solution, rather than a portion. It isn’t that we do not what the limits of technology are; we do not ask if we are using the right tool.
I agree with this assessment. Now, when I peruse textbooks that are written for college students (in neuroscience), I note all the missing pieces of information. Not just nuanced counterarguments, but complete series of compelling experimental evidence that points to alternative theories. And that happens even in a 700-page textbook. Imagine how much can be lost by reduction into sound-bytes (not compressed, since it implies that the total information is there but reformed into a more efficient notation.) Television has shortened political debates into short oral bursts (hopefully, with visuals), because its strength is in providing ever changing stimulation. The Internet will reshape reading on a screen, emphasizing scanning, clicking and instant look-up, not necessarily understanding or retention, since the information is always at hand. The new “smart” will be in constructing proper search terms.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, though. As Postman and Carr suggest: be aware of what is happening to you (although I am paraphrasing liberally; they devalue this type of intelligence. I am willing to redefine what intelligence ought to be in this brave new world of ours). Maybe, one can simply use the search engine to find the proper book.
As a final aside: here’s another take on what we can lose. Scintillating intellectual conversation. I was browsing through the stacks at Porter Square Books and saw that there is a new collection of essays from Christopher Hitchens. The book jacket blurb seemed to have a pertinent statement: Hitchens combines intelligence, wit, a huge store of knowledge, the ability to recall from this “offline” repository, and charm. That description does sound like someone who would make a wonderful dinner companion. I can certainly see how conversational flow can be ruined if all of us are googling into our phones. But I sense a hint of elitism in that; for my part, I have a (I hope relatively idiosyncratic) collection of stories about science, quantum mechanics, Richard Feynman, mathematical gambling analysis, gadgets, statistical analysis, novels, World War II, microscopy techniques, and 19th-century European history running in my head. And that’s just a thin slice of what I know. Whether I am good company depends on the people I am with, how well I present my thoughts, and how receptive they are to them. I think the point is that, simply, Hitchens and I (and others) have chosen to remember different things. Maybe the cultural gatekeepers are just annoyed so many people choose to remember something different than they do?
Is curation important? I think so, but only in the sense that it plays to our virtues. We are not indexing machines like Google’s data containers. What we do remember are things associated with great emotional impact. That helps us perform single-trial learning (to, if we are lucky, avoid in the future things that hurt or almost killed us), but in this age, it can help us identify meaningful cultural objects. It may be reflected in the fact that we prefer people tell us of formative events that shaped their lives, rather than a considered answer as to the sequence of life’s happenings that let their lives unfold the way it did.
All this is a way of saying that, I agree with Perotta that reading culture will change. Since I am so comfortable with both paper and digital screen, I do not feel the same loss that Perotta does. I know there are readers out there like me: those who feel comfortable in a library, a bookstore, or on bn.com/ebooks. I pack paper books and my NookColor for trips. I write marginalia in books I own, and I upload my notes to Evernote when I read e-books. But are we the most common sort of e-book readers? No idea; I am not sure what the dominant form of e-book reading culture will be.