A recent study concluded that college students prefer paper to e-books at an alarming rate, almost nine to one. Does our preference for paper sound the death knell of e-books? Or have e-books simply failed to live up to their potential? In this writer’s opinion, we may interpret the successes, and shortcomings, of e-books by understanding simply that the way which we consume literature, its method of delivery, can be as important as the words themselves.
New technology masquerading as an old standby sets itself up for failure. Carrying a Kindle in your jacket pocket is certainly simpler than juggling all seven hardback volumes of In Search of Lost Time. But, if the only problem the Kindle sought to solve was luggage space, paperbacks and carryons have long since done the trick. E-readers, and by extension modern technology needs to play to its strengths.
Books Through the Airwaves
I recently came across a video that showed the hope how new technology in reading could not only expand how we shared literature with others, but how literature itself could share more with us. While full of Silicon Valley empty excite-speak, the message of this video, especially its final third, illuminates that technology can be used to enhance the reading experience, not just the convenience of reading.
Some of our best modern authors have embraced technology as a method by which new literature can be delivered. Jennifer Egan’s Black Box was released in serialized fashion—over Twitter. The New Yorker’s Twitter account published a series of tweets over nine days starting in May of 2012. Egan delivered a masterclass on suspense writing, weaving a provocative and spellbinding spy novella that Twitter’s 140-character limit strangely enhanced, rather than harmed. Egan took the technology and used it to its strengths. Similarly, David Mitchell’s The Right Sort began as a Twitter phenomenon, leaking to the public over 280 tweets, before the author developed the story into the longer Slade House.
However, for every technology success, there’s a failure. Atavist Books sought to tap into the market for innovative and enhanced e-books by publishing, in electronic form only, several novels and novellas, including the truly excellent Sleep Donation by Karen Russell. However, after barely two years, the company folded. While the company initially stated that the market was still dominated by print (and where do you hear that these days), the ultimate failure of Atavist lies in its inability to tap the potential of the medium. Sleep Donation, a fine piece of literature, would have worked just as well in print as on a Paperwhite. Black Box, however, belonged to the Internet’s airwaves.
Books as Objects
The common refrain for lovers of the printed word, is that the feel, the heft of a book is what draws their delight. How else to describe the difference between your Nook copy of Infinite Jest and the paperback edition, scuffed and shredded to death from countless bus rides, clipped together and written over throughout, a Field Notes notebook taped to back cover to keep up with characters—speaking from personal experience, there’s hardly a better way to read such a tome.
Books have become more attuned to their status as objects
Just as vinyl-record sales have ballooned and grown based on not just their content but on their physical form, so too have books become more attuned to their status as objects, not just conduits for words. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a shining example of the book as object, requiring the reader to follow trails, both figuratively and literally at time, turning the book around and around to decipher its haunting tale. Danielewski’s other novels, including the reversible Only Revolutions, meant to be read then flipped upside-down at intervals, have all embraced the book as object format. J.J. Abrams’s S., complete with ephemera, notes, letters, seemingly handwritten margin comments, champions this form as well. The project of book as object might have been best employed by Zachary Thomas Dodson’s Bats of the Republic, which contains a literal envelope, embossed on the outside with the warning “Do Not Open.”
Far from judging a book by its cover, regarding a book as an artwork in itself, separate from its content, is another means by which authors can express themselves. In Brazil, the public transit system even gives away free novels with built-in RFIDs, so the books double as subway tickets.
Books as Fragments (and Vice Versa)
All this discussion isn’t to dismiss or minimize a book’s content. Sometimes the content of a book itself, and its relation to the outside world, is what best affects our reading of it. How a book is edited, for example, or the context in which it was arranged can affect our reading of its content. Even our understanding of an author’s personal experiences (beyond simply the first-year English Lit survey class revelation that Hemingway drove an ambulance in World War I, just like in the book) can affect how we read a novel’s content. It’s not simply the context in which a book was written, but the context in how the book came to be that can define our reading.
The context in how the book came to be can define our reading
For example, The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s posthumously released final novel, is a testament to tragically unfinished works. But a close reading of Wallace’s oeuvre reveals that many of his novels end abruptly without true resolution, as if waking on a beach with the tide way out. Could the context of Wallace’s suicide affect how we read the novel? Did Wallace mean for it to? Or are we prescribing meaning to the meaningless and making sense of the senseless? Whatever your take, Wallace’s suicide is as wrapped up in The Pale King as if the novel were the note itself.
Similarly, Kurt Vonnegut’s inclusion of himself as a soldier in Slaughterhouse Five adds untold layers to the story. The book begins with a first-person account of the author discussing his writing of the novel that he’s currently in, as if to throw the reader off from the get-go. But, if the reader understands that much of Slaughterhouse Five is indeed autobiographical, and that Vonnegut truly did experience the bombing of Dresden, then the author’s wrestling with defeatism and fatalism and nihilism takes a staggeringly personal turn. Even Finnegan’s Wake, championed for its fragmentary style, is as much about the delivery, the method of the writing as it is about the content—if not even more the former than the latter.
Technology doesn’t seem poised to stop the printed word, no more than the fire of storytelling could ever truly be snuffed out. However, instead of being afraid of change or of new methods to consume written text, we should embrace new and exciting means of reading. Now that we know e-readers haven’t come for our books, we must ask ourselves, what can we do with e-readers, or truly any new form of writing, that we haven’t done before.