"A Waterfall of Text"


Amazing! Thanks Paul!
Great piece. There's a lot to agree with, but (as always) I'm going to pick up on the thing I don't agree with.

He says that complaints about reading "Formless Content" on current devices are about comfort only; "these aren’t complaints about the text losing meaning". I beg to differ. I think he underestimates the importance of book design, layout, and typography even on waterfalls of text. Danielle Steele may be a bad example, but even she, I think, expects her finished product to take a certain form, even though she may not have written it that way. Fonts matter, layout matters.

Reading on my Kindle DOES lose some textual meaning, because boredom sets in after hundreds and thousands of pages all in the same crippled font. Not just boredom in the yawning sense, but in the sense that the text is alive in my mind. It all starts to look and feel the same, whether it's a crime novel, a history of France, or a book about soccer.

Reading the Kindle is exactly like reading a huge stack of memorandums in an office, or computer manuals or some such.

It IS possible to write alertly and readably in a constant font and layout like that, but it's a different kind of writing, just as writing in comments here on Slog is a different kind of writing and reading than, say, a Beckett novel or something. It changes what you say, and it changes how the reader perceives it.

When I compare the monotony (literally, mono-tone) to the power of printed books to express just through typography, the change is startling. You don't notice it when you first pick up the Kindle, but you DO notice it when you go back and pick up a decently printed book.

This applies even to trash fiction. Trash fiction reads completely differently in hardcover than it does in cheap paperbacks. This difference was greater back in the glory days of the pulp paperback (1940s through late 70s), but it's still true today in the world of computerized fonts. Computerized fonts are still fonts.

I also reject his assertion that "disposable" fiction is less valuable than "quality" books. If you look back at earlier eras, a great deal of the most interesting book artifacts are trash -- detective stories, for instance. In fact, I would say that the average work of trash fiction hits its mark much more regularly than the average work of "literary" fiction (most of which is unbearable, and is forgotten even more rapidly than the trash). This applies not just to the texts but to the books themselves; classic paperback covers of the cheesiest sort are often outstanding works of colloquial art. A future cultural historian of, say, 2210, is almost certainly going to be more interested in Danielle Steele than in any small press output, no matter how beautiful.

Someday someone is going to do a pretty great dissertation on the art of the embossed cover.
Fuck me with a spoon gently.

Seriously, the pretentiousness of you "artists" is beyond measure.

The iPad ain't for you. Go whine about it in a bookstore and leave the rest of humanity alone, for FSM's sake!
Add salt since I haven't read the essay yet, but this strikes me as the opinion of someone who doesn't read the way other people watch TV. I do (that is, I enjoy escapist, fun, not necessarily thought-provoking fare a good deal of the time) and these "disposable" books are very valuable to me. I like to take a paperback traveling or in the tub or to the gym, and a future where the only physical books are Works of Art is unappealing to me.
Leek, the point is that paperbacks (and TV shows) ARE works of art, in that highly skilled practitioners have spent a lot of time and effort making them look the way they do. And that effort tells -- it affects the way you perceive them. It's not just "art books", it's EVERY book.

Will, you are THE absolutely perfect philistine: "smug and ignorant and indifferent or hostile to artistic and cultural values". You're a Republican at heart, always have been.
Fnarf: Yes, I follow your point there. I suspect it's very true (although I have not tried reading on an e-book reader) that even the trashiest of paperbacks has idiosyncratic qualities that e-books can't (or won't) reproduce. While I agree with you, though, I'm more focused on the practical ways I use paperbacks that an e-book reader would be weird or inappropriate for.
Unfortunately, the list of things that makes a disposable book nondisposable is generally not anywhere on the list of why people are buying them -- and can even work against them. Out of context lurid covers for detective pulps from the 40s or fantasy cheapies from the 80s might be collectors items now, but I guarantee you everyone who bought the book to read it felt purely embarrassed by the cover, and bought it IN SPITE OF the cover at least as often as BECAUSE OF it.
I think this is why Fantagraphics has continued to do well, even relative to the recession. FB's graphic novels are, in addition to their literary qualities, beautiful fetish objects. Bibliophiles will continue to buy books but they still want quality reading, so they will be happy to read the disposable stuff on the screen but they will want to own and gaze lovingly upon their favorites as they adorn their shelves.
@7, which is why we today oftentimes have no idea what it is about our own culture that's really interesting. This has always been true. One of the most interesting facets of the pre-digital age is the way the ephemeral often turns out to be the part worth keeping. If I could go back in time 150 years and save a bunch of print, I wouldn't go near a fancy bookstore; I'd try to grab as many obscure newspapers, pamphlets, and magazines as I could get my hands on.
@4, you are right on target. I can read a cheap edition of Grisham in a drizzle waiting for the bus, in the tub, on the crapper, etc. These are not places I want to deploy a $500 electronic reading device (the iPad's $ tag). People don't get mugged for $6 paperbacks, nor do they care much if they get a bit wet or smashed. The anxiety I associate with carrying around an expensive & relatively fragile thing makes all such readers a non-starter for me. The worry-free, cheap, dependable (battery free) medium of the paperback book does not need improvement.
@9, but how much of that is due to their rarity? Think of comic books and baseball cards -- those things were valuable and interesting because they weren't kept. Once people started "investing" in memorabilia -- once you had people buying first and special editions and bagging them, or encasing all of their cards in bulletproof luxite, they got significantly less interesting. They became part of the retained culture, and stopped looking weird or interesting. The value you're attaching to posters and pamphlets and magazines doesn't say anything about their worth as art or design or anything else.

I'm not saying you're wrong -- hell, if I ended up in the thirties I'd load up on pulp magazines and phones -- but that fighting to preserve that kind of material is counterproductive at best. The location of that ephemera is going to move out to the tablets and the computers, especially as they become more durable and better designed. No one collects old PCs because they look boring and ugly, but people do collect old video game consoles and ancient programs. You'll see the same demake/retro chic kicking in around tablets, I'm guessing.
@10, do you have a cellphone? an mp3 player? That's two, three hundred bucks right there.

I don't know about you, but I don't use my cellphone or iPod in the tub.