All that holding, lifting and turning … the future of the book

Sense and sensibility book covers

Printed and e-Books for Jane Austen's Sense and sensibility

Back in May while I was travelling in Japan, Jennifer Byrne (host of The First Tuesday Bookclub) convened one of her special Jennifer Byrne Presents panel discussions, this one on “The future of the book”. I finally got around to watching it this week. Her panelists were Richard Watson (writer and strategist on the future!), Kate Eltham (writer and Executive Officer of the Queensland Writers Centre) and Richard Flanagan (award-winning novelist). You can read the transcript or watch the show on the ABC website.

I’m not going to analyse it in-depth, but Byrne kicked off the discussion by asking the panel for their response to “the theory that our connectedness with the net is actually impacting on our capacity to read and think deeply”. In exploring this and related questions, the panel talked about:

  • the pros and cons of distractions: do they, for example, encourage creativity or destroy our ability to concentrate?
  • the nature of writing and book production: will the novel (as we now know it!) survive in the new digital, web-based, more interactive environment?
  • the nature of reading: is it a social activity or a private act?
  • writing: will the (apparent) democratisation of writing and publishing make it impossible for writers to make a living out of writing – and if that happens what will happen to the novel (literature)?

But, the most entertaining point came late in the program from Jennifer Byrne:

I’d like to read from the Institute for the Future Of The Book. This is someone who wrote in last month and I think gives us an idea of the problem that does face print ahead. ‘Cause this is a guy… He says he reads almost exclusively on screen, he’s got a kindle, an iPad, an iPhone, a Blackberry, a laptop… ‘But this weekend I did something radical and old-school. I checked a big, thick book out of the library.’ This is the bit I love. ‘The physicality of the book, having to hold it open then lift and turn each page…’ (Laughs) ‘..was a lot more exhausting than I remembered.’ ‘That holding, lifting and turning distracted me from the book.’ What’s happening to modern people?

I’m not sure that we can generalise from this comment to “modern people” but this did make me laugh. And then I thought, hmmm, I do like to read on my Kindle. It is easy to hold (very much like a book), but it is the same (light) weight whether I am reading Ford Madox Ford‘s novella The good soldier or Leo Tolstoy‘s War and peace. I no longer need to have multiple books on the go: the one to read at home because it’s too heavy to lug around, and the smaller, lighter one that I can carry in my bag. Perhaps the comment is not quite as silly as it first sounds?

The program provides no answers. How could it?  And some of the opinions presented are, really, just that, opinions, based more on personal preferences and anecdote than research. But for those of us interested in the future of the book – of the novel, of the experience of reading – it’s yet another interesting discussion to ruminate on.

39 thoughts on “All that holding, lifting and turning … the future of the book

  1. I watched this when it was on, but I was a bit disappointed in the guests in that all of them, except for one, seemed anti technological advances.

    • Interesting Marg … that was my impression too, though reading the transcript I got a slightly more balanced view from them all. But, generally the show did come across as a little reactionary.

  2. People with kindles use them to read books much as books have always been read. That’s why Amazon’s dropping the keyboards. They’re clutter – few people take notes (bloggers being an obvious exception) and interactivity isn’t a key issue for books.

    I didn’t catch this debate. The issue is debated often on the Guardian though and it gets pretty dull. There seems an assumption one is on one side or the other. Out gleefully hailing the death of “dead tree” or complaining about people who read ebooks being soulless.

    It’s a nonsense though. I read ebooks and physical books. Most people with ereaders I suspect do likewise. Besides, like it or not the future for the mass market paperback is pretty plainly one of migration to ebook. One can debate whether it’s a good thing or not, but it’s a thing either way.

    • Your last sentence Max is the real one isn’t it … they can debate all they like but they’d spend their time better working out how they are going to make it work for them (particularly the authors worried about their livelihood) than bemoan it. Change is inevitable. One does get a little tired of the “death” of [name your concern] pronouncements which we of a certain age have seen come around again and again and again in our (comparatively) short lives.

      BTW I do love the look of the new kindle/s (and would like a touch one, particularly for bedtime reading so the “page” turning noise wouldn’t bother the bed partner) but will stick with my Kindle 3 for a couple of generations yet I think. Do the touch ones have a pop-up keyboard like the iPad, or are they getting rid of it altogether?

      • It has a virtual keyboard which is accessed by the five way buttons. That means if you’re writing say “house as metaphor for state of the marriage?” (which you’re probably not since in certain kinds of novels it always is so it’s not worth noting) you’d have to pick out each letter individually. Painful.

        That said, I still plan to get one. It’s not as good for notes, but it’s much more portable and has the same screen real estate. It looks like a great device.

        I used to hate death of the novel articles. The novel is fine. Now death of the novel articles have died and we have death of the book. I don’t see the book disappearing as a physical product, but I do see it becoming a high end product. Vinyl is still with us after all.

        • I’ll be interested to hear how you like your new kindle Max. I will upgrade to a touch one one day but not right now … I do use the notetaking facility so that five way button keyboard sounds a bit irritating but I guess one can get used to it. It will be interesting to see what happens to the book over time, but I think your suggestion sounds a likely way for it to go.

  3. Readers are fascinated by the implications of new reading devices and how they change the reading experience. As Max says, the press are rather over-doing it at the moment. I read almost exclusively e-books nowadays and resent having to return to paper – the Kindle is so much easier to carry around and enables me to chop and change while on the go. People seem to love their Kindles, even to the extent of making beautiful hand-crafted covers for them – which seems rather extreme to me in view of the inherently plastic and silicone nature of the thing!

    • Thanks Tom. It seems to be a case of “when you’re on a good thing stick to it”. As I finalised this post for publishing I heard another discussion of the topic on ABC radio – except I closed my ears to it. Enough already, I thought. I still read a lot of print – partly due to review copies and partly because not all the books I’m reading (such as the Rowley biography of the Roosevelts I read recently) are on the kindle. But I did read The castle of Otranto on Kindle, and am currently reading Northanger Abbey (again – reading it again, but first time on the Kindle). I enjoy reading it, and carrying it around. So manageable, so neat. I haven’t personalised my cover though!

  4. Thanks for the link to the show. I will watch it this weekend because, you know I like to follow things like this. When I first read in public on a Kindle a few years ago I was one of two people I ever saw on the train with an ebook. This week I happen to be carrying a print book with me instead of my Kindle and I realized there were more people using ereaders than reading from a print book. Do you make your Kindle notes public? If you do, would love to follow you 🙂

    • Oh no Stefanie, I don’t, but thanks for asking! I’d be too embarrassed. When I lend my print books, I sometimes erase my pencil marginalia because my notes aren’t particularly erudite. Sometimes I just note plot points, sometimes I might just write “Ha!”. I know what I mean and why but I’m not sure anyone else would!

      Let me know what you think of the program. For me there some of the interest was because of the Aussies she interviewed.

      • Watched the program over the weekend and thought it was really interesting. It’s nice to hear that the same issues are playing out there as they are here. I liked Kate Eltham and what she had to say very much. As to your Kindle notes, I don’t think you’d have anything to be embarrassed about but I can understand not wanting to share them. It took me awhile before I dared to since most of my notes are things like “Ha!” and my highlights are very much meant to help me easily recall the book for blogging.

        • Oh, you say “Ha” too do you? My highlights sound a bit like yours – to remind me of plot points OR lovely ways of expressing something OR a character description. Can I follow your Kindle notes, says she cheekily!

          Kate Eltham was good wasn’t she?

  5. I have a kindle and use it, but I do still prefer to read a physical book. I particularly like knowing how far I am through a novel. The kindle tells me I am 90% through, but this doesn’t tell me how long I have to go. This is important because plot development and reading time are tightly coupled and knowing where one is in the story is part of the critical apparatus. I also hate it when the kindle screen goes blank at an exciting point because the battery needs recharging (lectio interrruptus!). And I can’t lend a good e-book I’ve just read to my 85 year-old mother-in-law. These things having been said, the e-book is here to stay and my only prediction is that I don’t think stand-alone e-readers will survive. As for whether the novel will survive – I think so, because telling stories in words is a timeless technology. The human brain provides the images.

    • Oh Judith, I know exactly what you mean by knowing where you are. Somehow the % doesn’t seem the same does it, and it’s not so easy to flick through the book to find a favourite part either. I also have an iPad and it tells you the pages, but the screen is nowhere near as easy on the eye and it’s not as easy to hold. I don’t have many books on it.

      So, I like reading my kindle, I like holding it, but I haven’t totally converted to it. If I have to pay “real” money for a book then I tend to prefer a printed version. Most of what I’ve read on the kindle so far has been classics. I think the kindle (or somesuch) will be great as we get older – I love the fact that you can change font-size for example.

      As for the future of the novel … your point is spot on.

  6. I just realised something! Kindles/e-books offer me one boon, which is that I’d be able to read long long long books without stressfully holding them open just an inch so as not to crack the spine! 😛

  7. My hands – fingers and wrists – are rapidly giving me lots of arthritic pain. Holding big fat books is a very real problem. I adjust by propping them up, designating best reading places – like only in bed etc. When I’m out and about – I hate a very heavy hand bag weighing me down so my Kindle is great. It was wonderful on the plane and while travelling around Greece this year.
    I plan to allow the two technologies to happily co-exist in my life.

    • Ah yes, Magpie, I had thought of failing sight and large print, but I hadn’t thought of the arthritis problem. Clearly “all that holding, lifting and turning” isn’t as silly as it first sounded. I hope Jennifer Byrne is reading this blog!!

  8. It is amazing how the issue of holding onto an actual book is emerging these days. Here in the Cat Politics household, I recently read the latest Neal Stephenson book, Reamde in hardcover. It’s over a 1000 pages long, and although I admit it was problematical to hold at first, I soon adapted and enjoyed the silky feel of the pages under my fingers and the reassuring heft of the book itself, whilst devouring its contents avidly – it is a great page turner of a novel. Interestingly, the Kindle version received many complaints, as it was missing content and there were many typos and misprints. Mr CP is now reading my hardcover copy of the book and whinging about its weight and the difficulty in turning its uncut pages, and wishing that I’d acquired the Kindle version. The reason I purchased the hard cover version is that Neal Stephenson is very collectible and I already have a fine collection of his books in 1st editions which this one will complement handsomely.

    • I must say Anne, that I never have liked the physical challenge of reading very big books … some of them don’t open easily without severely cracking the spine, and they can be difficult to read in bed so I do rather understand Mr CP’s feelings on this one! But I also understand the collectible issue … and, as Judith mentioned above, also the lending/sharing issue. If you had it on kindle you’d have to let Mr CP to use your kindle or you both have kindles and you’d swap kindles or I think you can do some minimal lending of kindle books now can’t you? Hmmm, it is a bit complicated.

  9. I have a Sony E-reader which fits in my handbag and is therefore v useful when I’m travelling or waiting longer than I expect to somewhere, but I prefer, probably because of the familiarity of the medium to me, to read paper books when sitting about at home. On the lifting question, having studied languages, I’ve always longed for electronic dictionaries to replace the heavy non-electronic ones. That for me is where the Sony e-reader really comes into its own, as it incorporates a number of foreign language dictionaries (although none in Cyrillic or other script). Now I can (theoretically, at least) read Proust in the original in bed with a dictionary without being surrounded by mounds of books. Also on the e-reader/trad book debate, I heard Susan Greenfield talking to the Horrid Histories author on the radio the other day. He was vehement that the book was to the e-reader as the horse and cart was to the car. She, rather cleverly, I thought, said that was a false analogy and the book was to the e-reader what the bicycle is to the car. In other words, both will continue to exist for different purposes and in different contexts. I know I am going on a bit here, but the other thing that worries me about the idea of converting entirely to electronic and digital text is that, should anything go wrong with the infrastructure that supports it, we lose everything, whereas, if texts exist in paper form in lots of different repositories all over the world, unless the entire world is engulfed in fire, we will always have that information preserved.

    • I’m happy for you to have “gone on” zmkc. I hope Susan Greenfield is right because I still do like the physicality of the book but I’m wondering how much of that is because, as you say, my familiarity with the medium. It may be that books will become high end objects – like the big coffee table art books, gardening books, or even limited edition art objects. I find it really hard though to second guess what’s likely to happen on this one …

      The other thing too is that there’s the experience of reading (which is what we readers mostly talk about) … but there’s also the impact of the technology on publication and distribution and on how that might, as Flanagan fears, impact on writing as a career. It’s an exciting time. I think there’ll be more diversity/variety rather than that we’ll lose what we currently have, but maybe I’m being a Pollyanna?

      • You’re right about art books – certainly at the moment the e-ink or whatever it’s called technology doesn’t seem to support colour. For that, you need a glowing screen, which hurts the eyes, I believe – eg an I-pad or computer. I do think the question of storing everything in a form that relies on electricity is dangerous. So easy for the lot to be wiped out. So, at least as repositories, I very much hope multiple paper editions never disappear.

        • Oh yes, I have an iPad but my eyes do get sore. I believe you can put an anti-glare layer on it which I think I should but haven’t bothered as I don’t use it for intensive reading. The Kindle is so much nicer. And anyhow, for art, the iPad screen is smaller than the quality art books.

          You have a point about digital storage … preservation standards are that items are preserved in their original format (that is the format they were produced in for distribution) so as long a work is produced on paper a number (usually) of repositories will protect it. But, of course, some things now are only distributed electronically so that is the only way they’ll be preserved BUT hopefully in a number (again) of repositories. Still, as you say, they are dependent on power.

  10. I’m sorry to hear the kindle edition of the new Neal Stephenson is so poor, because for me he’s the posterboy for kindle editions. His books are so large that I don’t think I’d dare read a hardback copy. What if it slipped from my fingers? It could fall and crush me to death.

    • This made me laugh … But size and weight of books do affect our reading choices don’t they? And the Kindle et al changes all that …. Though they bring along their own challenges. What’s that saying? No gain without pain?

      • Length impacts me because I really do think “does this book need 800 pages? Will the time it takes to read this be worth the four 200 page books I could have read?”

        Measuring by width. Shameful I know.

        Otherwise though definitely. A large hardback is distinctly unportable. I read mostly on the tube going to work and back. I might read some of the recent Philip Hensher’s on Kindle, but I wouldn’t in hardcopy. It simply wouldn’t be practical.

        • I’m pretty much the same about length. Of course I’ve read some great long books – Tolstoy, Dickens, Mistry to name a few authors – but I’ve got to feel it’s going to be worth it. Mostly I like shorter, tight books, so I reckon we can be partners in shamefulness.

  11. A well made counterpoint Judith, but while there are great multi-volume series the majority of fat fantasy books aren’t in that league. There’s a market forces element. The fans like open ended sagas, so that’s what gets published.

  12. I do love this blog – just have to remember to keep coming back!
    This all makes me think that my favourite room, in the homes of anyone who manages to have one, is always the library. I have often measured people by the spines on their walls and not necessarily under their shirts!
    Last year I rallied together part of my book collection – especially the new school snazzy favs I will NOT stop ordering from Amazon – and had a built-in wall unit (I know, very 70s) made in a room my children may not enter. It’s my favourite place. All those dusty tomes give me comfort and I have loved finding scribbles or dedications in secondhand books.
    I love my iPad for blogging and quick communication but I won’t budge – and it strains my eyes – I don’t want a screen in bed!

    • Well thanks Catherine … I enjoyed your article on short stories that you pointed us too, but must go see if there are more comments on it now. Not all blogs seem to allow you to subscribe to comments which is a shame.

      You’ve reminded me of a great point. I first started considering people by their books in my mid-teens when I was a babysitter. It’s fascinating how some people hate finding scribbles in second hand books, while others love it. I’m with you … I find it fascinating.

      I agree re the iPad, but I do like the Kindle as a reading device.

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