Monthly Archives: March 2010

A book is a book is a book . . . ?

It’s not that I don’t think a lot about books and reading as it is. I’ve written in Viral Learning about how I thoroughly I think in print rather than images. I’ve been a nearly compulsive reader since I first learned to read, I’ve worked as a bookseller in an independent bookshop, and I’ve written books. Books are clearly a major part of my life.

But over the past few months, I’ve been thinking even more than usually about the nature of books. In one sense, I’m a romantic about books—I’ve always loved the worlds I can disappear into with a good book.  I like trying to notice—and invariably missing—that moment when the letters on the page transmogrify into the world of the story. More mundanely, I like a good binding, the feel of good paper, and the elegance of  book design and typography.

But I’m also a realist about books—they’re often heavy or awkward to hold, cheap bindings and spongy paper are all too common these days, and I worked enough years in that bookstore to know how dirty books are. They collect grime as fast as you dust them, and even brand-new, freshly printed books are covered in paper lint that collects on everything it touches.

Naturally, I’m interested in the onslaught of e-readers—the Kindle and the Nook and the many other new dedicated reading devices. Honestly, skeptical as I was, I wanted to like them—a good electronic reader would have the same sort of appeal as that magic writing-by-dictation machine I wanted for school essays when I was ten. But to say I’m not impressed would be an understatement—I hate that monochrome digital ink and that disconcerting short pause while each new page loads. The technology itself distracts me from the reading.

Unsurprisingly, I was an ebook Luddite and expected to remain one. Real books are . . . books: bound sheets of paper with real ink.

Then I bought my iPhone.

It would be handy, I thought, to have a few books on my phone for when I travel. When I’m working bout committee at fencing tournaments, it’s not uncommon for me to pack half a dozen books, just to make sure I have something I’ll be in the mood for when I feel like reading on the plane or before falling asleep at night. The Stanza and Kindle apps were free and there were tons of classics in the public domain to download, so why not give it a try, even if it wouldn’t be like reading real books?

Holy cow.

Reading on my iPhone is, in most cases, better than reading a “real” book. It took me a bit of fiddling to discover that to avoid eyestrain, I need to adjust the brightness as the ambient light changes. (In Stanza, you can do this within the app with just a vertical finger swipe, so it barely distracts you from the text.) But I can also choose a nice sepia-on-cream color scheme, ragged right text,  and any of more than a dozen typefaces (on Stanza, anyway) in several sizes.

With that kind of customization and the narrow width of the lines on the page, I can see the type more easily and read more quickly than I can from a paper book. I can hold the phone in one hand without needing to shift the weight around every so often, and I can even read in the dark without bothering anybody else (as long as I turn the brightness way down.)

Books on my iPhone take no space on my shelves or in a suitcase or tote, they remember where I left off reading, they let me make notes as I read, and they even let me share them with a few others. There’s also one benefit that would never  have occurred to me to think of: no paper cuts.

Naturally, there are—and will always be—books that are better on paper. Illustration-heavy works are problematic on a small screen; scrolling around an enlarged image isn’t the best way to see a map or chart or photograph. Design-heavy works where the page layout is important are likewise better on paper.

The vast majority of modern books—those composed of long stretches of text—are well-suited to digital existence, though. It turns out that it’s not the feel of the binding in the hand or the turning of the pages or the smell of the paper that gives a book its bookness—it’s the story.


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The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.—Bertrand Russell

I read about the Dunning-Kruger effect on Nathan Branford’s blog and promptly followed his ink to the Wikipedia article about it. This explains so much about the world, like all the parents of youth fencers who complain at tournaments about the horrible referee whose bad calls rob their children of victory, when said bad official is a highly ranked and famously competent international referee.

I can remember indulging in such arrogance myself in other areas when I’ve known less than I thought I did.

At least the effect is remediable—you just have to learn more.

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Technology to love

So there I was, sitting in the chair at my dentist’s, waiting for her to come start work on my new crown and dreading that numb-all-the-way-to-my-ear feeling that I’d be stuck with for the whole afternoon. The assistant took the first impression, and then Jill, my dentist, popped in and said, “Hey, is it okay with you if I try my new toy that I got a few months ago? It’s kind of like a GPS for anesthesia, so only the one tooth we’re working on is numbed.”

This sounds pretty cool, I think, so I consent.

The toy is called STA—Single Tooth Anesthesia. It tells the dentist when she’s got the needle positioned in the right place and when enough of the drug has been delivered—literally: the machine talks, though it has gauges, too.

But does it really work?

It sure did for me. I felt a little numbness along the edge of my tongue while Jill was drilling, but that was gone by the time the assistant finished putting in the temporary crown. By the time I left the office, I could only tell I’d had any dental work done by opening my mouth and looking at the temporary.

I can live with that.

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Going Freeform

With nonfiction, I’ve always been a fairly organized writer. I never made a formal outline but I was always conscious of the shape of my work.

Usually this began as writing down a list of all the ideas I wanted to cover and then deciding how they chunked into groups. For an article or a chapter, these would be subtopics; for a book, they would become the chapters. Once I’d written some of the subtopics or chapters, I might see a better way to organize things, but until I had the basic structure worked out, I never got far with the writing.

I always assumed fiction would work the same way for me—I would need to work out the basic plot and sketch out the major characters before I could seriously start writing. It turned out, though, that until I started writing, I didn’t know enough about my characters and how they thought and behaved to figure out what they’d do until I’d written a couple dozen thousand words.

I’ve always liked that line about writing to think: “in order to know what I think, I have to see what I say.” Fiction, it seems, is a magical variant of the same idea: I have to write my characters in order to see what they’re like, and then, suddenly, once they’re down on paper, I can see what’s right about them and what doesn’t work and needs fixing, and as I write and rewrite, I see what has to happen.

I’d never have guessed I’d turn out to be a non-outliner.

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