Are Friends Electric?

Question: when is a book not a book? Surprisingly often, when it’s an ebook and the question becomes even more relevant when contemplating the future of said product.

Ebooks were so overburdened by the significance put upon them with regards to the future of reading that it’s no wonder so many have fallen at the first hurdle in trying to be said future.

It began simple enough. After all, ebooks are nothing but slices of HTML and there were enough web designers able to understand what was needed to create and format them. But it seems to have ended with one company so vast that it threatens to eat up whole countries. Publishers and authors pushing back hard against that company (and others) with lawsuits. Designers asked to make a product that more and more feels like a multi-media experience (usually for a pittance) than actual reading. Somewhere in the middle of all this lies an item that seems hardly worthy of all the fuss. Reading can be fundamental to what being human is all about, but it’s worth remembering that oral and pictorial communication amongst ourselves is much older. Ereading may ostensibly be part of a future so bright you have to wear shades, but it is a supreme irony that it also seems to becoming a crucible for creative tyranny.

Now, ask anyone who knows me. I love reading.

Really, I do. The stack of books patiently waiting to be read would probably topple and kill my baby grand-daughter if she but pulled one out of place Jenga style. For as long as I can remember I’ve read, in primary school I’d prefer to find a nice quiet spot instead of playing with my classmates in the schoolyard. When asked by my wife to list what I would miss the most when dead replied (after diplomatically putting her and my children/grandchildren first) that I would regret not reading stories yet unwritten.

But here’s the thing and this is what will seem strange to the people who also know that I design them for a living – I don’t read ebooks.
Oh sure, I have ebooks on my ereaders, but they tend to be the ones I’ve designed and QA’ed. Others I’ve downloaded and cracked open to see how my fellow ePub authors have done a certain thing. eBooks actually bought tend to be training manuals that I also downloaded as PDF’s and read on my PC. Why? Well, when ereading first appeared in the UK, like everyone else I was fascinated by the ease of use. The lightness of the ereaders. The ability to take a whole library anywhere I wanted and download that same library anytime, anywhere that had a decent wi-fi spot.

That soon pales when you realise something fundamental to reading: it takes concentration.

I’ll reiterate that again because it really is important. Reading. Takes. Concentration.

And whilst reading, by nature, tends to be an involved, intense kind of experience; on your Kindle Fire, iPad, Nook HD it has started to become an exercise in self-control.

You always start off with the best intentions. After all, reading is easy isn’t it? But then, there is the temptation to check your email, Twitter, Buzzfeed. Play that one round (promise) of Candy Crush and when you next look up the whole day has passed you by like Douglas Adams deadlines. Standalone ereaders like the Kindle Voyage or Nook GlowLight lessen this impact*, but on the whole it feels like the complexity of a book is lessened in favour of texture. Atmosphere over concept.

For the ebook this has been made all the worse by publishers asking for ebooks that are multi-media:- “Don’t just read a boring old book. Learn all about the author. See archive clips and hear readings by serious sounding, dramatic, deep-voiced actors. Have full length documentaries on just a few lines of a stanza and what they meant. Even better, have Nicki Minaj make a rap video explaining the complexities of Kierkegaard and how it validates her ass-shaking…”. You get the idea. The humble book has been elevated beyond its place of imagination and ideas into one where everything is explained and dissected till nothing is left. I have the internet and Twitter for that.

This may sound like old man whinging, but I’ve long had a sneaking suspicion that the latest generation of readers is one that has begun to be more separated from the past and with all that entails.

So after all that, what is it that I like about ebooks? The craft. I love getting a raw manuscript or Word doc and creating a beautifully designed ebook that is clear to read. Fiddling around with code and trying to make things fit across a range of delivery systems. This can involve much banging my head on my work desk with highs and lows (because there is always one motherfucker trying to skate uphill; isn’t there Amazon) but when it all comes together and works beautifully – mmm… cupcakes.

So, back to the original question: are ebooks books? Yes, seems to be the general consensus. Just enough to matter.

*though their monochrome aspect can lead to amusing consequences. Whilst perusing a cookbook on the Kindle Voyage I noticed a full-page image of the different types of flour used in the making of bread. Unfortunately, the image was in black and white, thus making the flour indistinguishable from each other. E-ink books really are best just for text books, but the publishers feel that they have to put their catalogue across a wide range of carriers. Creative tyranny.

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