Literary Thoughts

A book is a physical object.  It is printed on paper and has a cover.  It has a publisher who undertakes to have it printed and bound (and with any luck, marketed and publicized).  This, I would contend, it what most authors have in mind when they sit down to write a book.  It isn’t just “content,” of which you can find far too much on the internet.  It is an object of pride that you can slot onto your shelf with a great sense of personal achievement.  It has taken a lot of work, and headaches, to get to this point.  Several months or even years of your life.  An idea that can’t be addressed in a couple dozen pages.  A book is born!

Publishers are more and more pushing the ebook, however.  The ebook is not a book in the same sense as a printed object is.  In some sense it may be more durable.  It’s certainly easier to get quickly.  But how do you get excited over writing an ebook?  Whenever I’m writing a book, there’s clearly an object in mind, not a cloud of electrons.  Ebooks have their place, but as people start talking about a post-literate future I start seeing visions of my own tombstone.  It gives me a strange kind of comfort to know that all of my books so far reside in the Library of Congress.  Some university libraries even buy copies.  Would a carpenter take pride in an electronic table she built?  Can you set your book on it?  If you don’t carve your “Kilroy was here” in stone, how will you ever prove it?

As handy as ebooks are, nothing matches the sensation of walking into a room full of books.  The sense of rapture is palpable.  Such rooms are monuments to our culture.  A screen with metaphorical tons of content may be a tribute to technology, but is any of it real without ink connecting with paper?  There’s nothing wrong with “content;” I produce some every day.  The thought process is different from book writing, however; just like the process of writing poetry differs yet again.  The publisher always looks at the bottom line.  (And I don’t mean the last line of a poem.)  And to keep “books” profitable the conversion to “content” seems attractive.  It breaks down, however, if writers no longer think in terms of books.  The book has a storied history and a long future, if we keep in mind that it’s something far more refined than mere content.


In Praise of Brevity

I recently read an article in praise of short books.  Marina van Zuylen, whose response led to the article by Steven Weiland, praises not only brevity, but also print.  There is a difference between reading an actual book and reading something on a screen, even if an actual book of it exists somewhere.  I don’t buy the argument that books are clutter.  Books are my life, and if you start tossing them out you might as well start chopping bits off my body.  But it’s her thoughts on short books that really caught my attention.  Not that there’s anything wrong with long books.  Good ones are like getting lost in a pleasant mind-forest.  But I miss short books and the sense of accomplishment they engender.

Maybe like me you see a book online and get excited.  You really want to read it and then you click on its landing page and learn it’s over 300 pages long.  Or 400.  Or more.  You stop to think; do I really want to invest that much time on a single book?  As van Zuylen explains, some tenure committees don’t take short books seriously.  They want heft.  This blog should stand as proof that anyone can multiply words.  There are well over a million words on this blog alone.  As a book this blog would be about 3,650 pages.  Without footnotes.  But it’s not a book, and that’s the point.  Your time is valuable.  You’re choosing to spend a little of it with me (Thank you!).  I keep my posts around 400 words.  A five-minute read.  And I like books that I can finish in a week or two, along with my full-time job and other life responsibilities.

The electronic revolution—as good as it’s been—distorts things.  Even the very definition of “book” is up for grabs.  My mind always goes back to the scriptoria with weak-eyed monks rubbing aching backs as they laboriously copied books out by hand.  Today we don’t even wait for the paperback, but download it instantly.  How is this the same?  And yet we have less time than ever.  That’s why I enjoy short books.  Some of the most impactful (oh, that word!) books I’ve read have been brief.  As Pascal long ago noted, it’s more difficult to write a short piece than a long one.  So I join Dr. van Zuylen in her praise of the short book.  Long may they live!

At least it’s real…


Digital First

Publishers these days are all yammering about being “digital first.”  Now, I use technology when I write these days, despite the fact that I am coerced to shut down programs at 3:30 a.m., my writing time, because tech companies assume people are asleep then and that’s when upgrades happen.  Still, even as an author of the modest academic sort I know the unequalled thrill of seeing that first printed copy of my book.  Authors live for that moment.  It’s our opiate.  Publishers don’t understand that.  Five years back or so I had a novel accepted for publication.  (It never happened, but that’s a long story.)  At one point the publisher changed its mind—post-contract!—and decided that my story would be only an ebook.  They tried to make me feel better by saying they thought it would do well in that format.

Who wants to hold up a plastic device and say “Look what I wrote!”?  It makes about as much sense as smoking a plastic device.  No, writing is intended to lead to physical results.  Even those of us who blog secretly hope that someday someone will say, “Hey, I want to publish your random thoughts as a book.”  As long as it’ll be print, where do I sign?  In some fields of human endeavor there are no physical signs that a difference has been made.  Is it mere coincidence that those who work in such fields also often write books?  I suspect not.  Writing is a form of self-expression and when it’s done you want to have something to show for it.  All of that work actually led to something!

Since I work in publishing I realize that it’s a business.  And I understand that businesses exist to be profitable.  I also know that technology sits in the driver’s seat.  Decisions about the shape of the future are made by those who hold devices in higher regard than many of us do.  I’m just as glad as most for the convenience of getting necessary stuff done online.  What I wonder is why it has to be only online.  The other day I went looking for a CD—it’s been years since I bought one.  At Barnes and Noble about all they had was vinyl.  I’m cool with records, but my player died eons ago.  I had to locate a store still dedicated to selling music that wasn’t just streamed or LP.  That gooey soft spot in the middle between precomputer and 0s and 1s raining from the invisible cloud.  I went home and picked up a book.  Life, for a moment, felt more real.