Beautiful objects

It happened again. I was at work holding my kindle, settling yet another semantics argument with the dictionary, and someone came along and said ‘oh is that one of those e-book thingies?’ I said it was and, knowing that she is a reader herself, asked if she was thinking of getting one. She said no, because she likes books.

I wanted to say that I like books too. In fact, that’s why I like to be able to carry lots and lots of them around with me and buy new ones whenever and wherever I want to. That’s why I like the ability to get out of copyright works for free like the copyright laws intend, rather than having to pay a publisher almost the same amount as a new paperback. That’s why I like a forum that allows writers to share whatever they want to, whether it is good enough by traditional standards or not. I didn’t say these things though. I said something like ‘oh, right’, because I was tired.

I’m tired of always taking e-books side in the digital vs traditional argument because, in truth, I’m not a total convert. I still buy a lot of my books in print. Whether I choose to buy a print or e-book very much depends on which book it is. I never even considered buying a digital copy of IQ84 and when the book arrived I was really impressed with the way it looks and feels. Equally when I decided to buy Trick or Treatment I never even considered getting a print copy. I knew it was a book I was going to read on the train and then I’d be done with it. Browsing in the book shop the other day I saw a big hardback copy of The Night Circus and cooed over it in a way an e-book version would never have elicited.

The plain fact is, books make really lovely objects. Not all of them, obviously, but the ones where publishers decide to make a really attractive object usually end up really bloody attractive. Books have a lot of history bound up in them and its hard not to feel nostalgic about them. In his Booker prize acceptance speech Julian Barnes made the following statement;

“And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”

And, you know, while I can’t help but agree, as someone who has put out an e-book I got to wondering why digital objects can’t have the same allure.

Digital books are bound by a different set of limitations. For all the freedom and ease they bring they also take a lot away. You can’t really do fancy typography. You don’t get to choose your typeface (on kindle anyway) and you can’t lay the pages out exactly the way you want to. The fact that the type size can be changed by the reader takes that away. The book will always be framed by the e-book reader. Ipads looks pretty cool but my kindle is one of those old, bigger white ones so no matter what there will always be a thick white frame surrounding it and a little keyboard at the bottom just out of view.

So does that mean e-books can’t be attractive, alluring objects? Well, actually I think they can be. When I put my e-book together I spent quite a bit of time doing some nice illustrations for the different sections of the book and putting in page breaks so it flowed nicely and proofreading it so that I knew it was as good as it could be. Nothing spectacular, but I have seen some shockingly produced e-books that are so badly put together that it left them looking at best tawdry and at worst unreadable.

When doing the illustrations for my book I kept in mind the kind of screen that was going to be displaying them. E-ink displays, only being able to show greyscale, have a pretty severe limitation built directly into them, but I deliberately did stark black and white designs for my e-book and they look pretty decent on a kindle and on the i-phone app. Limitations inspire creativity, rather than stifling it.

Ultimately of course, its all about the words. The thoughts, the ideas, the stories; the container they come in is only of secondary importance, but it does have some importance. Books have been gorgeous things for a very long time. Digital books are so new they haven’t really had much of a chance to mature. But just because it is possible to slam a slab of html code into a kindle file doesn’t mean that that’s what we should be doing. Getting design, formatting and presentation right means a book will at least look like it deserves not to be dismissed as lazy and amateurish. Seems a shame to have the means to allow all writers an audience and then spoil it by producing work that looks sloppy before the first word gets read.

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