OK, so first of all: this isn’t an article about whether or not ebooks are a good thing. But I was thinking this morning about the now hackneyed idea that we’re moments away from an ‘iPod moment for ebooks’, and trying once again to work out why I think this is so very wrong. I’ve concluded that it’s because of the physical qualities of books. But not in the way you’d think.
No discussion of the future of the book is complete without someone saying, as if they’d thought of it first, ‘But books are tactile and sensory as well as intellectual, what about the feel and smell?’. Yeah, I like to read in the bath, I like to scribble in the margins, etc. This discussion has been extensively rehearsed, by people much smarter than me, so let’s sidestep this issue for a moment. But the physicality of books impacts on their contents, too, and it is this that makes the iPod a misleading comparison for the kind of content that might work on an e-reader.
Let’s look at books for a moment. While in the early Wild West publishing days of the 18th-century print boom works were produced in a bewildering array of formats (elephant folio, pamphlet, poster, flyer, handout along with more familiar books) in today’s mature publishing industry there is an inverse correlation between the size of the print run and the variation in the book’s dimensions. In other words, the more mass-market a book, the more likely it will be to conform to the average book dimensions: 110-135mm wide, by 178-216mm high. This is the easiest size to produce inexpensively, and sell at a price point the market will bear.
Length is determined as well, by manufacturing constraints at the top end, and the fixed overheads of printing at the bottom. Bookshops are crammed with full-length books whose contents could just as well be communicated in a short essay, or even in the title alone: I’m thinking of Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, but a glance at the self-help or business shelves of your local bookshop will show you plenty more. And yet to make economic sense they have to be padded out for publication in ‘proper’ book size. But to conclude from this (as many unwittingly do) that long-form books are necessarily the best, rather than just the most familiar, way of communicating ideas is mistaken; and to assume that this practice will transplant to e-readers, imagined as a kind of iPod for these long-form essays, is just wrong.
Look at the Web. The attention economy at its most feral. Whatever you’re writing, there is always better, more engaging, more pornographic or immediately relevant content only a click away. If I make this article too long you won’t finish it. In terms of print tradition, long-form writing is best; but online, brevity really is the soul of wit. Or, rather, the soul of not being ignored. Does this mean that – on the assumption that long-form is intrinsically good – the Web is ruining our ability to think deeply? Birkerts’ recent Atlantic article ‘Resisting the Kindle’ (see Bob’s post below) rehearses, after a fashion, some of these concerns; but a counter-perspective might argue simply that, without the physical constraints of print publishing, we are experimenting with new ways to communicate.
I read books, read blogs, I twitter compulsively. I use these different formats for different kinds of experience. I see no contradiction: what I’m getting at here is that the e-reader is being treated as though it is a viable vehicle for long-form writing, in a way that ignores the essential fact that long-form writing and reading is rooted in paper, and book manufacturing.
So, back to the ‘iPod for reading’ metaphor. Its proponents generally don’t dig deeper than ‘here is a small square device for storing and consuming lots of music’. The implication is that we can hop blithely from that to ‘here is a small square device for storing and consuming lots of text’. Regardless of stirring promises of e-books containing audio, video, fancy schmancy links and so on, the common understanding – and, indeed, the hope of the publishing industry – remains that this is a digital device for reading long-form texts. But this ignores the effect that iPods – or, more generally, mp3s – are having on how music is distributed. Once sold as albums, whether on LPs or CDs, music is increasingly sold by the micro-unit – a single song. A unit of content typically around 3 or 4 minutes long rather than 60-75 minutes.
It makes economic sense to sell LPs or CDs at a runtime of 60-odd minutes. It makes economic sense to sell books of around 80,000 words. But music for iPods can be sold song by song. So, extrapolating from this to an iPod for reading, what is the written equivalent of a single song? In a word (or 300), belles lettres.
And the Web is full of belles lettres. Now and then in my wanderings around the Web, I come across something and think ‘That’s a really important essay’. And I worry about the ability of the Web to take care of it for me: link rot always sets in eventually, Wayback Machine or no. I can’t print it all out. So how do I keep such articles? I would welcome a device designed for downloading and archiving essays I think are important, a virtual library device for the belles lettres of today.
Armed with such a device, creating playlists, mashups, collages of our favourite short works, we might become a generation of digital Montaignes, annotating and expanding our collective discourse. Blogging is already, in effect, the re-emergence of belles lettres; and while blog posts are typically written for the moment, a device that could earn the blogger a small sum (and the cachet of being considered worthy of archiving) for every essay downloaded might well inspire a renaissance in short work written for a longer lifespan.
As a device for consuming a kind of writing – long-form – developed within the constraints of physical print, e-readers are a niche product. Reading a long-form book on an e-reader is a bit like teleconferencing: it’s OK as far as it goes, but the meeting format evolved from haptic, as much as informational, constraints and still works better that way. There may be people out there who listen to entire albums, from start to finish, one at a time, on their iPods; I’m willing to bet there will a few who will enjoy slogging through long-form writings, one at a time, on a digital device. I don’t see it going mainstream. But a device for collating and archiving good, important, digital short writing? I want one.
So, please, can we forget about the handful of eccentrics who want to ruin their eyes wading through War and Peace on a tiny LCD screen. Instead, let’s bring on the real iPod for reading: something that lets me download, archive, tag annotate, share, playlist and categorise short-form works that would otherwise disappear into the link-rot mulch of yesterday’s Web. Let’s figure out a business model, an iTunes for micro-articles. Let’s take short-form digital writing seriously.
(Cross-posted from sebastianmary.com)