Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Future of the Printed Book?

Over Christmas, one thing I put on my list was a Kobo e-book reader. My decision was purely pragmatic. As a lifelong reader, I will always prefer the traditional book. Nothing can replace the feel of an old or new one in your hands. One of my favourite sounds, too, is the slight cracking of the spine as you open a brand new book. Two of my favourite smells are the inky smell of new books and the slightly musty one you get with older ones. So, my love affair with this tradition will continue regardless if I finally get an e-book reader (Santa wasn't kind this past Christmas).

So, why do I want one? Certain books in the world I just want to read and let them go. Most thrillers, even the good ones, are generally pretty disposable, so though I still like to read some of the better ones (such as The Assassini by the late Thomas Gifford which I wrote about here), I don't necessarily want to have them gathering dust on my bookshelf or stuffed in a box somewhere. On e-book, once I've read it, if I have no intention of reading it again, I could simply delete it. Novels like Arthur Phillips' The Tragedy of Arthur (2011) are a different kettle of fish. Phillips’ book was a wonderful piece of literary fiction with fantastic characters and a compelling plot. It is the type of novel I would happily return to again and I'm glad I have it as a real book. And besides, it's a real first edition. (How can book collecting even be possible if only e-books exist?)

Then there's the issue of weight as some bloody books weigh a ton. My evil scheme, which didn't work, was to ask for an e-reader along with a copy of Stephen King's new book 11/22/63 in electronic form. Why did I want an electronic copy of a book I ended up loving so much? Weight. The bloody thing, in hardcover, weighed 5 pounds! I got it as a real book over Christmas (which was my alternate suggestion if the e-reader wasn't coming), and my arms got pretty tired while reading it. So what is the future of the printed book? Trends suggest that the e-book is a runaway hit that will over the next few years completely replace traditionally printed books. For me, that's true for only a certain type of book. As for the group of readers who grew up with a computer in one hand and now an iPhone in the other, they will think nothing of reading everything electronically.

A page from Alfred Hitchcock: The Master of Suspense
But there is one type of book that I think will always be available in traditional form: the special “event” books. These include the big, honking coffee table kind filled with pictures of beautiful places around the world and words nobody ever really reads; along with one format I have always loved, the pop-up book. Pop-up books have fascinated me since I was little. My interest in them has continued into my adulthood especially as their sophistication increases. They’re built around a theme, or a new edition of a famous book, and they feature a surprise with each turn of the page; often in the form of a complex illustration that unfolds away from the page to create an image of a person, a ship, a hot air balloon, what have you. I have several in my collection, including, Alfred Hitchcock: The Master of Suspense that illustrates, through pop-up, scenes from many of his most famous films; Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, an abridged version of his 1999 horror novel in pop-up; and Frank Gehry in Pop-Up, a pop-up look at the outstanding works of Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry. Coffee table books would look silly electronically, and unless we develop hologram books, the pop-up will never work electronically. (Yes, I know, if you are reading this from the year 2050, I've been proven wrong, but I'm not psychic, okay!)

There were two other books which I got over Christmas that also would not work electronically. One, I guess, could be called a coffee table book; while the other is a fascinating hybrid of pop-up where instead of the images lifting off the page, secret pockets containing documents inspired by the fictional work are littered throughout. The books are Harry Potter: Page to Screen – the Complete Filmmaking Journey (2011) and Harry Potter: Film Wizardry (2010). The former is the coffee table book containing text and pictures about each movie’s shoot, props, costumes and other ephemera about the whole Harry Potter movie series. The latter is the book filled with pictures, text and those hybrid inserts with behind-the-scenes info about each film (up until Deathly Hallows Part 2 because it was still in production when the book came out). Neither book, in terms of their text, is really that interesting though Film Wizardry's author Brian Sibley is a better writer than Page to Screen's Bob McCabe. Sibley also wrote a very good behind-the-scenes book about the Lord of the Rings movies several years ago, and a not-bad biography of Rings director, Peter Jackson. In fact, with Page to Screen you get somewhat tired reading interviews with cast members about how brilliant, friendly, kind, and upstanding every other cast member and every director was on each project. Come on, there must have been some dickheads on the shoots.

A page from Harry Potter: Film Wizardry

But the way the two books are put together are just phenomenal. The quality of the images in Page to Screen is like a book version of Hi Def TV. There is also a sort of 'invisible surprise' on several pages. As you go through the book, you are constantly tilting the book right and left to capture the proper angle in order to see almost invisible line drawings of castles, brooms, crests, etc. Film Wizardry has some neat inserts, including reproductions of the Programme for the 422nd Quiddich World Cup from Goblet of Fire, and The Marauder's Map from Prisoner of Azkaban, amongst several others. It's all fun stuff (though sometimes the text in the two books are too similar), well designed and clearly aimed at the fans of the books and the movies. One flaw in both books is – considering how thorough each one is about describing the big set pieces in all the movies – that neither book even talks about the fantastic animated sequence (wonderfully directed by Swiss animator Ben Hibon) that gave a unique spark to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One. It is a very strange omission.

The design and look of these book are not things that can ever be achieved with an electronic book (okay, whoever is reading this in 2050, I got it wrong), so regardless of how many e-readers invade our world the printed book will always exist. It will continue either because of specialty books such as I discussed above, or because there will always be tactile people such as me who will always love the smell and feel of real books. Now, if they can ever figure out how to cut back on the weight of coffee table books (Page to Screen was a crazy 7½ pounds!)...

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

1 comment:

  1. The wonderful thing about ebooks is that they are searchable. You can download both the Christian Bible and all of Shakespeare in two files (one apiece) or join them as a single text file...and do all the searching that you want to pull up the bon mots or quotes, or simply to find something. If you go to Project Gutenberg, you can find thousands of PD materials and d/l to your computer and then over to your Kobo, Kindle, whatever.

    You can even create text files from encyclopedias and other reference books, and add them to your reader. Stuff like wine tasting notes...