Monday, 1 February 2010

WVM and the e-reader

This morning I took a carload of books to an ex-tank-factory on the outskirts of Brighton, and on the way back picked up a couple of boxes from the printer in Chiswick; tomorrow I’ll take more boxes to the Central warehouse in East London. I’m getting used to this. Just by looking at a book I can tell how many will fit in a box (a number usually between 30 and 80). I bend my knees before lifting. Books are heavy. Today I am publisher as White Van Man.*

Will our e-readers, our iPads and Kindles, make White Van Man redundant? I haven’t got one myself; but I probably will, at some stage, when they move up a gear. At present, because new technologies, like new religions, have to win converts, have to prove that they are more fit-for-purpose than what went before, and because most of the older-generation wariness about about e-books is based chiefly on the fear of losing the book as aesthetic object, the text on an e-reader usually mimics a printed page, and you turn the page with a swipe of your finger, and I just don’t see the point. This way of presenting the text turns its back on the possibilities offered by the technology, doesn't even recognise that it may have other purposes too: ‘It is like saying you will buy a car, but only if it looks like a horse and is limited to four miles an hour. And it’s not like we shot all the horses.’ (Quote from an excellent blog post here.)

Wrapped up in the fear of losing the book-as-object are, of course, nostalgia, fetishism, questions of taste and class and all the rest. None of them new. Thorstein Veblen, in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), had some cutting things to say about William Morris and the fashion for finely designed, hand-printed books at a time when mass-production technologies were coming, as he might have put it, online. ‘The claims to excellence put forward by the later products of the book-maker’s industry rest in some measure on the degree of its approximation to the crudities of the time when the work of book-making was a doubtful struggle with refractory materials carried on by means of insufficient appliances . . . The Kelmscott Press reduced the matter to an absurdity – by issuing books for modern use, edited with the obsolete spelling, printed in black-letter, and bound in limp vellum fitted with thongs. As a further characteristic which fixes the economic place of artistic book-making, there is the fact that these more elegant books are, at their best, printed in limited editions. A limited edition is in effect a guarantee . . . that this book is scarce and that it therefore is costly and lends pecuniary distinction to its consumer.’

Me, I’m not scared (‘We’re going on a bear hunt, We’re going to catch a big one’). This isn’t an either/or thing. From that blog post I linked to above: ‘This period is a massive opportunity for small presses. Without the confusion of the paperback as primary text-delivery platform, people are grasping that there is a particular place for a well-made paper book with original content; they are actually seeing what a book is for the first time. This is the opposite of nostalgia, it is the grasping of the relevant place for a technology in our time.’ White Van Man will stay on the road; which keeps me happy, because what I missed when I was filling in databases all day while working in a publisher’s office was not just the responsibility for how books look but the manual labour, the blue-collar stuff, their weight and bulk, the bending of the knees.

* In fact not white and not a van, but a purple car, with bruised fenders and an almighty dent on the side (dating from the day around four years ago when a woman in a 4x4 merged a little too fast and close on Shepherd’s Bush Green; let’s skip the insurance, she suggested, and offered me £250 cash). But it does the job.

1 comment:

David Henningham said...

Thank you for the compliment of quoting my blog. I thought you may be interested in a couple of things Fiona MacCarthy dug out in her biography of Morris. On meeting the Art and Crafts generation he couldn't understand why they were keen about hand-binding books and asked them "isn't there a machine that can do this?"

I'm not quite sure what he's saying, but Veblen may be underestimating Morris' desire to sell quantities of books; he was the biggest buyer of (unleaded) vellum after the Pope. As with everything, the book was a vehicle for him to explore high standards of craftsmanship rather than elitism.