In a talk at the Virginia Festival of the Book today, the director of UVA’s Rare Book School neatly summed up what’s wrong with the publishing industry today:
“The physical part of the reading experience — the paper, the cover, the reviews, the suntan lotion that spills on the pages — are all part of the reading experience,” said Michael F. Suarez, director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. “A week, a month, a year from now, if you see that paperback on the bookshelf, all of the memories are going to come back to you. It becomes an artifact and part of your humanistic experience.” […] “A digital book is not a book at all.”
This, in short, is really dumb. It’s the attitude that a lot of people in the publishing industry are taking, and it reminds me of the arguments coming out of the recording industry ten years ago. Albums are comprehensive, continuous works—you can’t break them up into individual songs. The album artwork is essential—people have to see the image on the front, the back, in the booklet. The experience of loading the record/tape/CD creates an anticipation that doesn’t come from the instant gratification of MP3s. If people don’t shop in record stores, there will be no serendipity. And so on. All of those arguments were dumb at the time, and are really just embarrassing in retrospect. (Earlier this week Jon Bon Jovi accused Steve Jobs of “killing the music business,” lamenting that “kids today” are no longer “making a decision based on the jacket, not knowing what the record sounded like.” He regards this as supporting evidence that electronic music sales are a bad thing. Blogger Davis Wiskus points out that there’s one group that doesn’t complain about the shift to digital music: People who buy and listen to music.)
It is entirely understandable, given his line of work, that Rare Book School director Michael Suarez treasures the artifact that comes to mind for most of us when we hear the word “book.” He’s in the practice of protecting, restoring, and teaching others to protect and restore physical books. So he could reasonably have said that he really likes books as a physical object. He could have said that, for a few hundred years, books as physical artifacts have been really important. But claiming that “a digital book is not a book at all” is just, well, dumb. Of course it’s a book. Let’s try a more modern version of the prior quote:
The physical part of the reading experience — the glossy screen, the weight of the battery, the reviews, the suntan lotion that spills on the case — are all part of the reading experience. A week, a month, a year from now, if you see that EPUB cover in iBooks, all of the memories are going to come back to you. It becomes an artifact and part of your humanistic experience.
There is nothing about any of these aspects that are fundamental to the transmission of ideas from the mind of an author into my own mind. Suntan lotion does not aid in this process. Suarez is confusing nostalgia with value, in a way that would be expected in a man twice his age (“I’d just used it that morning to wash my turkey, which in those days was known as a walking-bird”), but that he’s perhaps a bit young for.
The reason why this attitude is so destructive is because there are a lot of Michael Suarezes, and some of them occupy really important positions in the world of physical text. (It’s not really Suarez who I’m annoyed with—he’s just the trigger.) I’ve been seething for three and a half years after reading D.T. Max’s “Final Destination,” in the June 11, 2007 New Yorker. Max profiled the the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which is a stunningly well-funded literary archive that has been outbidding all other comers in their quest to amass the largest collection of manuscripts, rare books, and personal possessions of famous authors. When I started to read the story, I thought this was probably pretty great news. These collections have a way of getting scattered to the winds, winding up in personal collections where they’re of no benefit to anybody else. If UT Austin can afford to buy and preserve them, then Google or the Internet Archive can find them all in one place to get them online through their digitization efforts. Wrong.
[Center director Thomas] Staley’s conservatism extends beyond his literary taste. He does not want to place the Ransom’s archives online. He believes, quoting Matthew Arnold, that “the object as in itself it really is” can never be replaced by a digital reproduction. “Smell this,” he told me one time when I was in his office, as he picked up a manuscript box from the Edwardian British publisher Cecil Palmer. We inhaled the scent: tobacco, mold, dust. “See, there’s information in the smell, too,” he said.
That’s just awful. They’re limiting their collection to people who can afford to take a leave from work/school and travel to and stay in Austin because people can’t smell the books? That’s just asinine. It’s hardly any better than having them kept in a bunch of people’s attics. The 74-year-old Staley is still the director, and apparently his beliefs haven’t changed, because I can’t find a single page scan on their site. I wonder, if I visit, if he’d be OK with me squirting a little suntan lotion on the pages? For old times’ sake?
There’s an entire cottage industry of people writing about how a) e-books are killing writing and publishing b) e-books are inevitable but will require some adjustments and c) e-books are the greatest thing ever and dead trees are the worst. I’m not looking to leap into that here, so I will avoid the tropes of explaining how briefly books have been the things that we now know, and about how the loss of the oral tradition of stories was lamented centuries ago. I simply want to make the point that people like Staley and Suarez are Luddites who, in mistaking their own preferences for what is best for everybody, are playing their own roles—obviously much larger in the case of Staley—in preventing people from reading the very books that these men treasure. They’re creating a collection with a value that is going to become increasingly hypothetical, a function of its growing irrelevance stemming from its inaccessibility.
William F. Buckley famously wrote that “a conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘stop!'” I think that applies nicely here.
Well said. It’s the story, not the smell or the cover, or the feel of the pages.
My guess is that the people who are reading the latest John Grisham on their e-readers are probably not the same people interested in the rare books and manuscripts that won’t be scanned and put online.
I get what they’re saying and I agree and disagree. A book is not an electronic file. A story, be it in a book, spoken word, or in an electronic file, can become a different creature when presented through different media. The words are all the same though. A song can be a recorded piece or presented in the form of sheet music. The data is the same, but the presentation and interpretation is different. I can read Shakespeare or I can go see a play (or read the Cliff’s Notes like I did in high school).
If it’s a work of art, then I would think the author would best know how they want their work received. If it’s a reference document, well, then does it really matter? But I think most writers just want their works read and absorbed. I can google an image of a Picasso painting, but it’s a little different to see the real thing. At the same time, reading the original manuscript in an author’s handwriting is much different that reading the 100,000th print paperback version.
But not making an electronic file available when it’s so easy? That’s Medieval.
I don’t believe that there was “serendipity” in the Beatles White Album assemblage, the Who’s Tommy, the Stones Exile, or Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Maybe they’re irrelevant to you, but they are certainly immaterial to your point about books paper vs. plastic(with which I agree). Would you purchase Dickens by the chapter and claim that you had read him?
Thank you for writing this. I’ve been in your camp for years.
There is just as much anticipation for me to hear new music when it’s being downloaded onto my computer and subsequently loaded on to my iPod as I had when placing a CD into the CD player (only to be really bummed out when I realized the CD had a scratch on it and skipped).
Also, I do miss reading the CD and album covers while listening to the songs of my new album. You know what I do now? I read that information on the band’s website while listening to the album on my computer…you know, the one I just downloaded and the one that will never skip. Never, ever.
I have two objections to that line of thinking:
1. Why don’t these same artists, producers, and label executives object to radio? I hear “Another Brick in the Wall” on the radio pretty regularly, but I’ve never once heard it in the context of the entire album on the radio. Why is that OK, but if it’s delivered digitall, that’s wrong?
2. Few albums are Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper. 99% of albums are a random assembly of songs, with no thread running through them, nothing cohesive about the whole work. Absolutely nothing is lost by listening to a single song out of the context of the album.
I think that’s a good point. Every step that we get removed from the author’s brain, we lose something. The author loses something in trying to commit what can be a fairly abstract thought into a paragraph (that’s edited for clarity, edited for copy, and edited for length, sometimes altering the paragraph significant), and the reader is probably the less for that process, in some regards. (In others, the reader should be quite grateful!) When we lose the author’s voice—his literal voice—we lose something. When we lose the author’s handwriting, we lose something. But by the time that a book is printed, especially popular books that go into dozens of printings, in cheap paperbacks in dozens of formats that that the author will never see, I find it difficult to believe that “The Firm” (to use Janet’s example) loses anything being read digitally. That’s not a knock on Grisham or his writing, but rather an acknowledgement that some works have gone so thoroughly through the publishing meat grinder that it’s unlikely that there’s much of the author’s humanity remaining outside of the literal text.
Very good summary of the range of thinking on this issue. The media is part of the experience and critics of e-books are right to say that electronic media can alter the humanistic experience but they are premature to say that the experience is lesser or unworthy of examination.
What I think more is at stake is the idea of the book itself. The production costs of a book necessitate so many economies of scale that are being torn by electronic publishing. We’ve all read a 300 page book that would have been better served in 75 pages but the cost of publishing both are marginally different. Issues like this are radically changed with electronic publishing.
Furthermore, the role of a publisher must (and will) change. Authors need proofreading and critical feedback but they don’t need a typesetter or an advocate to create space on a shelf for their physical object. It will be really interesting to see which publishing houses embrace a new relationship with authors and which ones resist the new value proposition.
Waldo, what did you expect? He’s a Jesuit, for crying out loud!
I can’t understand the argument that digital music somehow prevents the listener from enjoying an entire album. Has anyone ever had a digital album tell them they can’t listen to the entire album?
I’m sure there were some scribes in Gutenburg’s day who were mightily frustrated that the uniform print of the machined text destroyed the art of hand made books. Before them, the scroll makers despised the codex form. Go far enough and there is an Egyptian chiseling in stone and telling people to get off his lawn.
While I enjoy the full book experience, and part of me worries that my own personal enjoyment of physical, leather-bound, books of real paper will no longer be subsidized by a large market of people who can get the story no other way, I also realized that it is anti-market to expect people to subsidize my own personal love for the dusty tome.
I completely agree; it is both dumb and greedy to try to prevent the story from getting into the hands of as many people who actually want just that part as possible, and at an appropriate price for that market.
I feel the same way about bundling of television. I want us to go to an a la carte pricing model because I am sick of subsidizing sports, home shopping, and religion channels that I will never watch because they are bundled into a cheap package that has my favorite classic movies and foreign news channels. I threatened to leave my satellite provider if they raised my rates one more time because the over-paid sports media providers wanted more money; and miracle of miracles – they did not raise rates (probably more to do with economy than anything I said).
It will probably make my own personal viewing more expensive, because I know I am well outside the big part of the bell curve and simple market scale implies that the niche programming I enjoy would be funded by fewer people; but I think that is a useful place to go (mostly because I cannot stomach being part of the problem of overpaid sports people).
Hopefully they don’t destroy the books and manuscripts in their possession before history shoves the silliness aside.
Weren’t many of Dickens’ works serialized?
Whip and buggy nostalgia… though I have to admit, I have yet to become comfortable with the e-book. I’d much rather have it on my shelf.
First, yes, Dickens was heavily serialized and published volumes were the exceptions in his life time, I believe.
Second, while I’m fairly sympathetic to your point and can say with great gusto that 90% or more of my reading is in a digital form, there is something to be said for the loss of the album. During our youth (I believe we are roughly the same age) the CD was becoming the dominant form for distributing music and a new CD release was an event. I still remember the very first CD I purchased (REM’s Monster) and still have it, scratch free and amazing. As MP3’s came around a decade or so later something happened to my listening. Where previously I would put in an album and listen to it from beginning to end, today I spend most of my time listening to a wide mix of music with no albums to be seen. This is true of my personal collection or my listening through Pandora.
Recently, though, I tried RDIO, a newish service that essentially allows you to offload your music collection to the cloud for listening whenever you desire, in randomized or personalized order, or the order and playlist of the artist’s intention. Yes, Waldo, most artists today seem to release albums as merely a collection of songs, grouped together not for album sales but individually chosen for digital sales. But that was not the case when Weezer released their first album. Nor when The Avett Brothers released ‘Marionette’ to site a recent example. So, their is value in the album, but that doesn’t mean the album is paramount and thus digital music is evil.
Lastly, the big travesty with regards the UT Austin collection is that this is institution whose purpose should be to spread knowledge as far and as thoroughly as possible. If you had told me some kook millionaire was buying up these artifacts for storage so that their value from rarity would increase his own wealth over time, I’d say “Well, good for him.” But this is a school! It should be their imperative to provide these books and artifacts for all to read, and I pray that UVA never takes such a turn with their special collections.
Tim, I’m getting a huge kick out of your comment. :) You made my point far better than I could, in just a few words. :)
Shaun raises a point about having the book on the shelf – it’s something I own and it’s something I can lend out and share an experience with someone. I don’t have to worry about someone “taking” it from me as they could with some of these digital copies, and I can’t easily lend a text, or hand it down from generation to generation. I’ve got books my grandparents and great grandparents owned. Being able to hold something they held brings me closer to them than I think downloading a file will bring my hypothetical grandchildren to me, after I’m long gone.
I take my physical vs/ digital purchases on a case by case basis; there are a few artists that I want to have a physical copy of an album (R.E.M. , for example, because they usually make special editions with special artwork/liner notes) and there are others where I have no interest in having CD around my house. I usually buy the vinyl edition of albums I want to physically hold; the rest are iTunes only – I just do not have the inclination (or the storage space) to keep hundreds of CDs. Since I bought an iPad (with the Kindle app), I’m finding I’m doing the same thing – some books I want to have on my bookshelf (to keep/re-read/whatever), others I just want to read once and then move on. I have no interest in having a copy of a random paperback (that I will have to store or get rid of) just ’cause it’s some magical, physical object. Collections of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat belong on my bookshelf; Keith Richards’ book does not (to give two recent examples of my inner digital vs. physical debate).
Also, I have no issues listening to all of the White Album, or Exile on Main St., or Tommy on my iPod – they’re all there. With artwork. I would assume I could listen to the Wall just as easily, but Pink Floyd makes me want to stab things.
Physical books never run out of batteries. So there’s that.
Electronic books can never be lost. So there’s that.
To paraphrase Magritte, a picture of a pipe is not the same thing as the pipe. And a digital text version of a book is not the same thing as a “book” either. It is still writing, of course, maybe great writing, but not a “book.”
The only reason we’re having this discussion at all is because we’re all terribly confused when we have to call two very different objects by the same name. I digital e-book is not a book. In fact, it is so different we have to modify the name slightly (“e-book” “e-reader” etc.) to make the distinction clear. Both contain writing, certainly, and one hopes they contain the same words if they go by the same name and author, but they are otherwise two different objects. Whether you prefer one or the other, or one sometimes and the other at other times, is irrelevant, and saying that they are both the same is an unproductive circular argument.
Printed books on paper have value as objects that digital versions do not, but digital versions have other values that printed books can’t have. That’s why we have both.
I expect the greatest works will be reproduced in many forms and formats because we’ll want them that way. Why? Because I can still read my printed copy of Faulkner or Chaucer or Homer by candlelight when the power goes out, and my grandchildren will be able to do the same thing with my same books 100 years from now. But I can’t read your blog (or mine) when the power goes out, and I can’t even read the essay I saved in WordPerfect on a 3.5″ floppy disk only a few years ago.
We have Mahler symphonies in every possible format – from vast piles of printed paper music, wax cylinders, tapes, to vinyl, CDs, and digital downloads in MP3, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, etc. – and they will continue to propagate out to any new format that comes along for quite some time. Katy Perry? Mmmmm, hard to say. Great works of writing will be reproduced in many formats, too, from printed books on archival paper, to text only digital files. Not so great works will be allowed to slowly dissipate.
But, longevity can lend greatness of even mediocre works, by simple virtue of outlasting everything else. A warehouse clerk’s shipping manifest written on a clay tablet in cuneiform has a place of honor in a museum, today, but surely there were great works of art performed live in the royal court that same day we’ll never know anything about. Maybe there were more fabulous artists doing paintings at the same time as the ones working in Lascaux, but their works weren’t saved in a more protected “permanent” location. We know the story of Salome’s dance because it was written down on something relatively permanent, but what do we know of the actual dance that won her the head of John the Baptist?
All this is just to say that the archivists you refer to, while perhaps a bit full of themselves, have a useful purpose, too. And I hope if I ever write anything worth saving, that someone will go to the expense of printing it – even if only on paper.
“Electronic books can never be lost. So there’s that.”
? Really? People never lose their Kindles? Entire libraries lost by misplacing a single item. Also, files never get corrupted?
You mistakenly equate the device with the book. The books live in the cloud. You can lose the device, a book can get corrupted on your device, whatever, but you can always get the books back (for free) from the cloud. So, yes: Electronic books can never be lost.
For the record, my only point here is that a “But books do this thing that ebooks can’t do!” argument is pointless because they both have their own pros and cons. I personally don’t prefer either of the other.
Er, “either over the other”.
I like technology, its what pays my bills. Its ability to make discoverable and deliver information is unparalleled in our history.
We are in total agreement about rare content and its digital distribution. If you must touch it, then go see it. Otherwise, share it so I can download it.
But please recognize the danger of EVER getting away from physical books. They cannot be edited or changed without it being very obvious something is missing or changed. Another benefit is they boot up qickly and appear to be solar powered. ;)
We ( regular people ) are quickly loosing possession and in a roundabout way true ownership and oversight of society’s information.
Consolidation of publishers, news agencies (Does GE own everything yet?), etc. is making it far to easy to become a single source for a block of digital information. Very much bad on many levels even if that source has the highest ethics and the publics best interests at heart.
Dont dismiss sentimental attachment to a book either. My grandmother gave me a Bible 40 years ago and I treasure it along with her inscription…doubt a Kindle file or PDF with an email attachment would generate the same emotions.
Big topic, nice post Waldo.
but what happens when a company takes a book back:
I actually don’t mind e-books either. I was just playing devil’s advocate. :-)
I happen to prefer physical books, but have nothing against e-books. To me, they serve different purposes.
Well said, Tim. I love my iPad, too. It’s perfect for reading ephemera in small bites, and for reference works it’s far better than toting 50 pounds of print editions around. No question. But will my grandkids be able to read my favorite books on my iPad 100 years from now? Um, it will be obsolete and unusable, along with almost everything on it, before I even HAVE grandkids.
Funny this should come up, actually. My wife just finished reading a book yesterday (printed) and was scanning my library (shelves) for something new to read. She pulled down a paperback copy of the Hobbit given to me by my grandmother (she died 20 years ago) when I was in college (30 years ago). A note fell out (on paper), in my handwriting. She marveled at how my handwriting had changed since then, and so did I, though I recognized it immediately as my own.
Through those two artifacts, physical objects, I remembered not only the blue bedroom in my grandmother’s house where I read the book and wrote the note, but the cold lonely January during winter break when she gave it to me Freshman year when I couldn’t afford to go home. The digital version on my iPad did not bring back any of those memories or associations, and certainly didn’t drop a 30 year old handwritten note in my lap when I opened it. But, on the iPad I can find every occurrence of the word Gandalf in a matter of seconds! To quote Hemingway, “It’s a simple exchange of values.”
I think one value of the increasingly less viable economics of printed books is that book publishing in print will return to the small specialty publishing houses that existed before the big media consolidations of the last 50 years. Digital presses, and short run printing will become more and more a specialized business. Blockbusters will continue to be the only things printed by media conglomerates.
Sure, publishers can revoke books, but near as I can tell that happens rarely enough to be insignificant. And I’d much rather live in an ecosystem with that slim chance than in the current, hard-copy ecosystem where almost all works go out of print. I’m regularly stymied by books or pieces of music I’m looking for having gone out of print, but in the digital world there isn’t any equivalent because it takes no effort to continue making works available. It just makes me fear for the hundreds of thousands (millions, even?) of works already abandoned by music and print publishers that will never be digitized and will thus slowly slip into oblivion.
****2. Few albums are Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper. 99% of albums are a random assembly of songs, with no thread running through them, nothing cohesive about the whole work.****
This may be true, but individual digital tracks substantially decrease the possibility of future Pet Sounds or Sgt. Peppers. Artists are less likely to attempt something so grand when the format it’s released on neuters that effort.
Not railing against the inevitable, just pointing out that there are always unintended consequences.
(related sidebar – Before These Crowded Streets as a cohesive, seamless record would never and could never be made today. One needn’t draw from the music of our parents and grandparents to make the point.)
Pace, of course that record could be made today! Just because iTunes makes it possible for people to download songs instead of albums doesn’t mean that musicians will stop making albums. In fact, there are quite a few good albums that have been released in the last few years that make sense as a collective work (Hazards of Love by the Decemberists, for one example). On the other hand, many of the records we look at as “one, cohesive piece” are actually anything but: John Lennon said many years after the fact that Sgt. Pepper’s was only a concept album because they called it one at the time – he said his songs were completely independent of Paul’s idea, and other than the reprise at the end, the “theme” falls apart after “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Pet Sounds, for all its greatness, is still just a collection of songs, with no theme other than “Brian Wilson Is Awesome You Guys”
Ha! Too true. Side question: Did Egyptians have lawns?
Back to topic: As for music, concept albums still happen. But it’s usually only absorbed by the die hard fans of an artist.
And Bon Jovie is a dink. His argument boils down to, “We use to sucker people into buying our music with artwork. And all of the work, not just one song.” So now we have videos. Since MTV doesn’t play videos, here enters the internet and the host of video sites. Vimeo immediately comes to mind for showcasing art and design.
Does the PMRC have anything to say about downloads? Do they still put the warning stickers on albums/CD’s? Are there any warnings for digital downloads? Think of the kids!
And I was at a Kaki King show a few years back where she was talking about her first major release album on Sony. They told her all new artists only get 10 songs per album. How does that represent a body of work? In order to get more songs on her CD, she had to negotiate them on as bonus tracks “hidden” at the end of the CD. Silly.
There’s a major backlash against the major labels right now. Not in the 90’s indie spirit sense of “we can do it without you and in spite of you”, but in “we don’t need you”. Anyone and everyone can put out an album and have worldwide distribution for a couple hundred bucks. It may not be top shelf placement, but an artist can get their music out there. I think musicians are seeing that if they want to make money, they need to get out an actually perform or get hooked up with ads/TV/movies. Note, artists weren’t getting rich in the 50’s – 70’s selling 45’s or LP’s. Record companies got rich selling 45’s and LP’s.
Music and literature are two different businesses.
I am so sad that someone beat me to the point that so much of Dickens was serialized.
I prefer books — easier on my eyes, personally — but I have no problem with electronic distribution per se. Indeed, technology is undoubtedly a boon to a lot of writers who wouldn’t have their work read otherwise. How many of us would be reading Waldo Jaquith if he were churning out his musings as a pamphleteer instead of a blogger? It does also lead to some incredibly questionable business practices on occasion: most recently I came across a screenwriting competition run by Amazon.com where they would pay something like $20k if they liked your script — however, at that point, they essentially owned the rights to it and could produce or sell it at their own whim. Furthermore, whether you ended up getting paid or not, your intellectual property became what they considered open-source, and anyone was free to amend your work and submit it as his own.
Screw that noise.
I have cautious hope that digital distribution will ultimately usher in a renaissance both in reading and writing. We may see a return to serialization, perhaps — and that might actually improve the quality of what we’re reading. Dickens anguished over every line of prose precisely because each was in essence a sales pitch begging the reader to purchase the next issue of whatever weekly was publishing his work at the time. As long as quality writers are still able to make an honest living and people keep paying for their work, I can’t see it as a bad thing.
When you were reading David Copperfield in serials weren’t you just dying for the next edition?
Yes, Pet Sounds and Sgt Peppers…you made my point even better!
Nothing is new. Before the album there was the 45RPM single, and it was the domain of middlemen like Steve Jobs. Best in Packaging. Album creations like Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds were successful efforts by the artists to own their art and create a multidimensional space. A meal, not a snack. It has nothing to do with “digital”.
Nick, you missed my point – of course those songs could be written and recorded, even with the same arrangements. But DMB would never tie them all into a cohesive flowing album with segues and incidental music, since it’s all about individual digital tracks nowadays.
Everyone keeps talking like albums don’t exist anymore, like they’ve gone the way of the dodo. Am I living on a different planet than these folks? I can’t think of a single musician who’s abandoned albums for singles, and I’m unaware of any trend away from the album format in popular music. What is all this talk based on?
Will: Waldo hasn’t listened to The Wall! I’m not sure if we need to pass the hat and get him a copy, or go over and clean his gutters while he takes the time to hear it as the complete work. How can he have his pudding if he ain’t eat his meat?
Pace, I got your point, I just don’t agree with it. ;) I think they very well COULD make that exact same record today, to be released in a digital format – but if they WOULDN’T…well, that says more about them as a band than it does the viability of the format. Of course, when I added that record to my iTunes, I split the interludes into their own separate tracks, just because I am super-anal about things. :)
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