Sunday, June 28, 2009

Excursus on an author's vanity

Every now and again, I hear about a new website offering free e-books. You will forgive me for the fact that, without fail, I first scour the site anxiously to see if someone has uploaded my book. This is pure vanity on my part. No one would waste their time, and if they did I should likely have the person flayed and generously doused in salt and vinegar before forcing them to appear on Britain's Got Talent. Well, I'd probably meditate on that image before telling myself to get a grip. In fact, I should be flattered, not pathetically worried about whatever marginal (and probably non-existent) loss of sales resulted. But this thought arises because of the growing profile of devices like 'Kindle' and other pda-like e-book-reading technology. We are told, somewhat pontifically, that the age of the printed book is over. That soon a great portion of our current consumption of wood-producing florae will be finished, resolved and absolved, by a technological fix. I look forward to any innovation that will reduce the clutter about my house, never kind the carbon footprint. But I remain sceptical nonetheless.

Here's the explanandum and explanans. I find myself buying a copy of a book that I know I can read for free as an e-book on, say, Gutenberg or any number of less august websites. This despite the fact that I have decent computer, and a pda device as well. I can re-format the text if I like, add pictures at a stretch, save it as a word document or convert it to pdf. There's a vast array of free open-source software that will enable me, provided I will invest a small amount of time and effort, to do more or less what I like with a document. Yet, I still go and get the Penguin classics edition of Pride and Prejudice rather than take a few moments to download, perfectly legally, a text file of the whole work. Why? John Sutherland has pointed out that the printed novel or book has some technological advantage that e-books and equivalents can't emulate (as yet). Just for example, you can use your opposible thumb to flick back and forth between pages. You can write notes in pencil where you feel like it, underline if you want to, fold page corners to mark a place - all in a very easy, manageable and physically satisfying way. Now, I know you're going to say that these functions can be replicated or simulated in the e-book reader format - true, but far more burdensomely. With a printed book, you can insert yourself anywhere in the text in a split second. You can dip in and out, use the index, find a page number in very speedy systems of reference that actually don't work very well with reader technologies. The tactile aspects of reading which we take for granted just don't seem to be assimilable to the current in-your-face interfaces.

There is also a sense in which the e-book reader profanes what was holy. Once, however much a book was mass produced, and was as commodified as a packet of biscuits or a VHS cassette, all one had to do to bless it with the seal of the author's pure presence and authenticity was to get him to sign it. (I have repeated this operation a few times, and you'd be surprised by how many people are called 'eBay', 'Seventeenpoundsisabitsteep' and 'Justfuckingsignityoutwat' - all Tibetan names, apparently.) Now, I suppose, they'll simply superimpose a scan of the author's signature on a limited range of the downloadable e-books and punt them for 2% more. If that happens, I'm just going to call it a day, loves. Without that occasion for intercourse with the Ordinary People, I'm lost, and so are they. Anyway, the point is, that isn't going to happen, because e-books are mostly crap.