Who Slew the Paper Book?

There is no holding back the eBook.

When I walk onto a plane, go to a café, look out at my college students before a lecture, they are there to greet me: everyone has an eReader, and is tucking in to a good book.

Authors may be queasy about the loss of the paper book, which was the form that caused them to love story and storymaking, but for publishers, eBooks are a giant positive and higher profits will ensue:  much expense is suddenly removed from the physical production, storage, and distribution of bulky pallets of books.

Scheduling of release of novels is prompter (without the vicissitudes of a printer to encounter), delivery is instant, no inventories are needed to keep track of, and at no time will vast unbought overstocks simply have to be wastefully pulped (especially of former US Presidents’ memoirs).

Bookstores will use up much less physical space, if any, and forests be saved.
For those who are my young daughters’ ages, physical books are as left behind as Puff the Magic Dragon anyhow. Gentle Puff, you’ll remember, was good for when Jackie Paper was young, but the little boy’s moved on to manhood, and now Puff’s dead from neglect, along with the boy’s memories of the kings, princes, and pirates.  And Dear Reader, is any corpse deader than a deceased dragon, vast in body and laggard to decay with all that occult dragonblood in the veins? So it goes for the printed book.

Hang on for a time they will, and then they will mostly live in museums, university libraries, private collections, and our attics.

Because people so love the ease of e-books, they will cause paper books, as in the song about a once beloved and necessary dragon of painted wings, to sadly slip into a cave.
But…

I am holding a paperback copy of Greylands now.  I open it: it is warmly inscribed. It usually stands on my shelf. It can be shared, unlike many e-books. It takes up a little space in my humble house, and makes it richer with wonder.  Someone visiting might see it and ask about who wrote it and what her visions were.  I pass it by on my way to the kitchen, to eat, to live a little.  I may take it to a coffeehouse, and people will ask me about it, or to the beach, when I have it open and they can see its dramatic cover from some sandy feet away (and who’s to ever see your eBook cover as you read on your beach blanket?).  It reminds me of the dream-nourished woman who wrote it, who made libraries her sanctuary as a little girl, who is out of a fairy tale herself – a dark-haired imaginer who gently smiles, eases into your heart, and gives rescue to more readers than I may count.

None of this is what an eBook can do.

Though we forget it, the reading of fiction is an art.  It is not an app.  It is not a matter of convenience or time saving or getting you someplace fast.  It is an escape from all that.  In its effort-filled uselessness is the preservation of my sanity.

Another wrinkle: many of my favorite books are on art, film, photography, psychology, and music. They are lavished illustrated.  Oddly, as millions of readers move to eReaders, my wayward self looks for more massive tomes with reproductions of art and photos, where a e-screen under ten inches (no matter its silky glow) diminishes all.

A few such marvel-books come to mind that I will be enjoying this summer …

  • Through the Eyes of the Condor: An Aerial Vision of Latin America;
  • Black, White & Blues;
  • Black Star: 60 Years of Photojournalism;
  • Dramas from the Depths: the Illustrated Short Stories of Reggie Oliver;
  • Knowing Darkness: Artists Inspired by Stephen King;
  • Gahan Wilson: 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons (3 vols.);
  • Evolution: the Story of Life;
  • Hokusai: One Hundred Poets;
  • Lost Cities of the Mayas;
  • Call of the Desert;
  • Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals;
  • & Carl Jung’s haunted and shocking dream journals, long suppressed by heirs in a Swiss vault, The Red Book.

These are all absurdly oversized books.  My kids would groan under their weight; they would howl.  But their huge images are as magic to me. Try to enjoy any of these grand books on a puny eReader: it would be like hearing Beethoven as a dial ring.  Great convenience makes for great limits.

Can you think of any book you have read that will not translate into app or eBook? Let’s make a list…

Will books like these big-scale enchantments no longer be created by publishers thrilled by eBook sales?  I challenge publishers to keep making volumes that may not satisfy in an electronic format, but that people still need to hold in their hands.

Danel Olson wrote probably the most enticing invitation I have ever received to write a story for a collection.

It began “…Dear Ms Carmody, I am becoming addicted to your stories…”

Anything, I thought, he can have anything! I gave him “The Stranger” which I later drew into my Metro Winds collection. And recently he published the earlier version of “Metro Winds,” which went into the collection of the same name, substantially rewritten.

In truth, I wrote some of the best stories I have ever written for him, and I suspect it was the desire to keep him addicted that got them out of me.

I met him and his family some time later, when I was touring the states and he invited me to come and speak at Lone Star College in Houston, Texas, where he is a creative and enthusiastic lecturer. Hearing him talk about literature, you never get the feeling this is a man who takes it or anything else for granted. And being a long time and renowned collector and editor of stories, and a parent, he sees the world of literature from many sides–as a passionate reader, as a doting and conscientious parent, as a collector who deals with writers and as a lecturer who teachers them and their work.

So I was more than curious to discover what Danel made of the e book and app explosion. Especially since he is a native of the country where e books are now outselling traditional print books.

16 Responses

    1. Deb says:

      Great post Daniel. Poor Puff does seem to be dead and buried and books do seem to be going the same way, but I’m so glad you qualified the post by adding that there are books that really can’t be translated properly to an e-format.

      While I don’t have any specifics to add to your list right now, what comes to mind are picture story books and other richly illustrated books. I think you are right in saying that illustrations just aren’t the same on an e-reader screen, unless it was huge, which kind of defeats the purpose. I almost feel sorry for the young of today who may never experience the joy and magic of reading and viewing books of illustrations, photographs and other visual content.

      Any book by Ken Duncan could be added to your list. Awesome photography.

    2. I was trying to think of untouchable books, too. I remember reading this huge old map book which showed the different eras of history- how the world was organised socially, economically, weather wise etc, and it was partly the hugeness of it that I loved- but Paul Collins and Peter Mounsey have both mentioned that there an e reader in development that is as thin as a paper and foldable- that being so, it may be that we are headed back to the era of scrolls only they will be eScrolls.

      • Min Dean says:

        My grandfather had a massive atlas that sounds a lot like the one you described – with social and economical break-downs from the time. There are several countries in it’s pages that don’t exist any more. It also had this original, half-finished map of Australia in the very front cover. I loved it not only for the maps but the ‘facts’ about the world at the back – the geology pages were my favourites when I was a kid. I think my mum has it now. At least, I hope so.
        In my heart that atlas is irreplaceable, but I have to wonder if it’s nostalgia talking again when I want to add it to the list. I certainly don’t get the same feeling from google maps or wikipedia. But they serve the exact same purpose.

        As for truly untouchable books…I am having trouble thinking of any. I think as long as the original form still also exists, so we don’t lose the initial format, and if we look at it matter-of-factly as opposed to emotionally, anything can translate into an electronic version.

      • Emily Craven says:

        When i think of books that can’t be ebooks Isobelle, I think of your wonderful book Dreamwalker! I love that book and the beautiful drawings in it. I just can’t see how it would be as wonderful on my tablet.

    3. I don’t need to tell Danel that I am wholly in favour of the eBook, being one of those small publishers whose lot has been eased considerably by not having to store hundreds of volumes of inventory in the ever decreasing space of my own surroundings.

      For me, the eBook has offered an opportunity to explore many titles which otherwise would have stayed unread – a number of minor Victorian classics amongst them – but I treat the eBook as a convenience, something that I can take anywhere with me, and read at any time. No longer do I need to take a suitcase full of books when I go away for a week’s holiday. I do not consider it a replacement, rather a supplement to the traditional book, which I continue to buy in far greater numbers than is good for my wallet.

      But the eBook will develop and evolve and will eventually offer you interactive works, and books which right now you would not want to envisage reading on a screen. I do, however, support the call for the survival of art, photography, and movie books in a permanent format. I think that the book as we know it will be with us for a long time to come. Maybe the dragon, to paraphrase Monty Python, is not dead . . . he’s just resting.

    4. Jessica Nelson says:

      I am really enjoying reading this debate – so a big thank you to Isobelle Carmody, who has been at the top of my list of favourite authors since I was in school.

      I have been slow to convince about the benefits of ebooks, but now I can see that they really could be beneficial to the publishing industry in many ways (rather than spelling the death of carefully edited books, as I feared).

      Along with many people, however, I love the feel and smell of real books, and consider them to be things of beauty. I wonder whether this ebook revolution will result in more effort being put by publishers into bringing back the beauty of books as beautiful works of art. Will we see less $5 paperbacks in stores, and more delicious leather-bound tomes? Will we see brilliantly illustrated novels hitting the shelves to prove the worth of printed works? I hope so. Isobelle’s ‘Little Fur’ series is a step in that direction. When artistry is put into the binding, edging and illustration of a book, then it becomes more valuable than what you can find on an e-reader.

      The books on my shelves that I thought of when reading your list included a beautifully illustrated version of Terry Pratchett’s ‘Wee Free Men’, a leatherbound, illustrated version of ‘The Hobbit’ and an illustrated book on world mythology. I think (and hope) that children’s books will always be printed. For children, books are things to be enjoyed over and over again – they are made to be beautiful and fun. Really, as adults we lose out on a lot of that magic. ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ is remembered lovingly by so many people because it makes physically turning the page a thrilling thing to do. If the affordability of ebooks was combined with a real comeback in quality in the books that are printed, then it would put a real smile on my face.

      • Emily Craven says:

        What a wonderful vision! Bringing back the beauty of books. I love volumes that are special, with a touch of care. If that is what the ebook revolution brings about I am all for it.

        Wakefield Press here in Adelaide does some beautiful art books that would be so hard to digitalise. There is a definitly a place for these sorts of book, however, maybe not in the masses the publishers are use to.

    5. Nan McNab says:

      My first boss in publishing started out as a printer, and so he continued to produce books using the old technology of hot metal long after ‘easier’ and newer technologies had appeared. He appreciated a perfectly printed book where the type bit into the paper just enough, where the quality of the paper itself was critical, where the design of a page, the choice of font and leading could be deliberated over for days or weeks. These books were subtle works of art, whether they were local histories or collections of poetry. Their content was in one sense divorced from their appearance, since even the humblest book was beautifully produced.

      I would be very sorry to see the loss of fine printing, of artists books, of the book as an artifact, the smell, weight, touch and sight of it. (And how much more could be said about binding!) It’s part of the sensual pleasure of reading, but it’s not always essential. Bring on ebooks when all that matters is content, or when a writer or publisher wants a particular ‘look’ for a book that is best suited to a screen. Publishers, editors and designers spend a great deal of time deciding on the right format for any book. Now part of that decision involves whether it will be printed on paper or not. Let a hundred flowers bloom …

    6. Emily Craven says:

      A beautiful example of works of art in a book is a man who illustrated Tolken’s Silmarillion.`It’s beautiful calligraphy and man wouldn’t I love a copy like this!

      http://www.tolkienlibrary.com/press/902-Benjamin_Harff_Interview_Edel_Silmarillion.php

      • Oh Emily- what an exquisite book! That could never be the same in anything but a print book form!

      • Min Dean says:

        I remember seeing this a while back and wondering, how on earth does someone get a copy? There’s only one, and it’s his thesis project isn’t it?
        The chances of me getting to hold it as a physical book are slim. Actually, less than slim, lol.
        So if this was available electronically – while it wouldn’t have the same impact as the original, I’d be content. Anything is better than nothing.

      • Emily Craven says:

        Oh yes Min I agree. Though if I had the money to hire him for 6 months to make one I would!

    7. Emily Craven says:

      Slightly, (or should I say very) off topic, I was wondering if anyone had come across an indie version of Audible? I love audio books and there have been several indie books that I have read that I dearly wished were audio books and it had me wondering if there were any websites out there…

    8. Madonna says:

      Well I have to say that while I absolutely love books, being able to read books on my i-phone has made a huge difference to my life. I spend many hours sitting on tubes going to and from rehearsals, lessons and performances often with multiple, very heavy opera scores in my bag. Not having to choose between a broken bag & sore back and having a book to read is nice! And when I get home at midnight and slip quietly into bed so as not to wake my husband, my head is still abuzz with music, I can read until I fall asleep without having to turn on the light! So I love what e-books have done for my life!
      I think that opera scores could be added to the list of books that wouldn’t make good e-books. Sometimes there is so much detail in a single page of music – especially in the big finales – every singer has a different line – sometimes even in the vocal scores you only get 1 bar of music per page and if that were squeezed onto an e-reader screen you’d miss half of it. Not to mention the massive orchestral scores!

    9. David Cowen says:

      But then with ebooks and free apps the classics become readily available to anyone. http://www.feedbooks.com/publicdomain.