Monday, March 19, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Well, are they?

This particular question is a sub-section of the general notion that other media have now taken over from print. We are, so the current argument goes, all going to be reading off screen rather than off paper. As I am encouraging you to do at this very moment.

There is an anecdote that Nick Cohen recycles in his polemic You Can’t Read That Book. It has been very popular among advocates of the new electronic media.

In the early sixteenth century there was a monk who objected to the new-fangled movable-type printing that had been unleashed by Gutenberg. He wanted to defend the exacting art of hand-written illuminated manuscripts, which scribes had for centuries produced in monasteries. So he wrote a polemic attacking the crudity of print. But he wanted his polemic to have the widest possible circulation. So he sent it to the printers.

This is taken as an example of un-self-conscious hypocrisy and self-contradiction. At the very least it is paradoxical.

We now have similar paradoxes at the interface of literal physical books and their electronic equivalents. For a decade, Victoria University of Wellington has produced, on-line, an annual anthology of New Zealand poetry called Best New Zealand Poems. It has been hailed as an embracing of the new electronic media by an old literary form. What is more up-to-date than producing an anthology on-line? But when the annual anthologies of  Best New Zealand Poems had appeared for a decade, how was the fact celebrated? Not on-line, but by the production of real, physical, printed-on-paper book called The Best of Best New Zealand Poems (edited by Bill Manhire and Damien Wilkins, VUP, 2011).

As I pointed out when I reviewed this excellent collection for Landfall Review On Line, it is interesting that even in this electronic age, only a physical book is seen as having the prestige to represent the celebration of something.

Hypocritically, as I use an electronic medium to witter on further, I would defend the superiority of physical books over their on-screen shadows.

I could give you some practical reasons for this.

Whenever I’ve read a lengthy scholarly text in electronic form, I’ve noticed what a pain it is trying to flick back and forth to check such things as end-notes. (No problem with a physical book, as you can stick a literal bookmark where the end-notes are, for ready reference). Similarly, I could point out that, while literal physical books may burn in a fire (as may your computer or reading tablet) they are never in danger of having their battery or other power-source fail. Etcetera. Etcetera.

On the other hand, those who think physical books are superseded would immediately tell me how much physical space they take up, and how much more convenient their little square tablet is, holding the text of thousands of books. The American Library of Congress in the palm of the hand. And I would have to admit that, as a real book-bibber, I am fundamentally loyal to real physical books for purely aesthetic reasons rather than practical ones. I love the pleasure of handling their weight, inspecting their covers, enjoying the quality of their  paper, seeing their spines lined up on the shelves etc.

I do not think printed books are going to disappear in a hurry, however. Not only will it take quite a while yet for electronic books to penetrate the whole publishing-and-reading market, but physical books are still things that millions of people love as objects-in-themselves. I believe they will continue to be produced for that reason alone – in the same way that hand-crafted works of art still exist alongside mass-produced art.

Indeed, I believe that printed books will last longer than printed newspapers, which are well on the way to being replaced by other news platforms.   


  1. Printed newspapers replaced? Of course they won't be! This has nothing to do with the physicality of paper: it is all a question of the size and manipulability of the so-called viewport. As you point out, e-readers are quite limited. Endnotes in books (and even footnotes) don't transfer very well to e-books. But reformatting the notes as sidenotes and enlarging the screen size might solve that problem. However bringing the verve and variety of a newspaper page to an e-reader screen is a far greater challenge, because the audience don't want their news compressed into an A4 or A5 space. Quarto newspapers have never had much of a market. To offer the newspaper experience on an electronic screen requires a broadsheet-sized viewport (screen) and that is the size of a big television. And then you have to imagine how readers would fold THAT up and stick it in a jacket pocket when they get off the bus ...

  2. There was almost a suggestion that ebooks are spineless ...
    Although I haven't kindled yet, I do worry that the device (with its 7000 books I must read before I die) will meet the same fate as my Ipod, which was to seize up after about 2 years with its cache of several thousand songs forever lost in the dark avenues of its silicon slivers.
    Much as I admire the electronic carrying capacity of these devices I prefer the real books for those reasons mentioned. Bloody great heavy things that they are, some art books are simply beautiful.