In praise of shadows

— February, 2011

A reader writes:

I don't feel that print will ever truly die, but it's inevitable that e-books will become the norm. And I'm excited for what the digital book can eventually be, because as you've made very clear, it is very flawed at the moment.

I'm sending this e-mail asking to see if you had any advice on what I could do as a student to help improve the state of e-books? The only thing I can really think of is to possibly aim for internships with Apple, Amazon, or some other e-book publishers (like Inkling) to be involved. But there must be other ways I can help. Any ideas?

I get variants on this question frequently, so I thought I'd summarize some thoughts publicly.

First, as has been said before: print is not dead, it's only getting better. So let's brush that concern aside!

How can you improve the state of eBooks? This and more:

  • Read voraciously and on every device within reach.
  • Take copious notes on the device.
  • Take copious notes about the device.
  • Take your eBooks on adventures.
  • Read while traveling.
  • On trains, in planes, on the backs of elephants, by the beach.
  • What about the experience delights?
  • And, to a lesser degree, what annoys? (But try to focus on delight.)
  • Do not feel compelled to scale your map 1:1 with print.
  • Write.
  • Consider how you write.
  • Get a typewriter and write on that. 1
  • Now try writing the same thing on a computer.
  • Now get a wonderful pen and write longhand.
  • Wax on. Wax off. As it were.
  • Try to publish something, anything with a traditional publisher.
  • Publish on a blog for a while.
  • Think about those processes.

The honeypot around eBooks is to think only in terms of artifact. When, in fact, artifact is the just a thin (and thinner still) surface layer built atop a cacophony of systems and scaffolding. 2 Those systems are where the real change is happening. Affecting the future of the book is one part understanding the processes of reading, one part understanding writing, and one part understanding publishing.

It's an intimacy with these systems for which you should aim. And have fun — you're spelunking into the cobwebbed caves of the minds of your beloved authors. Into the shadowy recesses behind the words. To tread the same paths, use the same tools as did they. It should give you greater insight into the works produced with those certain tools, within the constraints of those certain publishing mechanisms.

The point being that digital changes all of these systems and tools once again. To see those gaps of past and understand the emergent gaps of present, is to gain insight into future form of the book.

  1. In the winter of 2009 I borrowed a friend’s Olivetti and set about a goal of several thousand words per day over the course of two weeks. I hunted down beautiful, thick, soft cottony paper. I set it up on a wooden table in my well lit Tokyo room. And I started writing. It had been years since I used a typewriter. Decades, perhaps. And the effect was shocking! I found my thoughts conforming to the media — ideas wrapping up as the end of the page drew near; the edges of the page affecting the words I’d use. And when a day of writing came to an end, there was the stack of violently pockmarked paper. Periods driven deep within the cotton. The backs of the pages like braille. It was viscerally satisfying. And very concrete. And like utter magic to have physical output — not just bits — at the end of a long day of writing.
  2. Well, it’s actually a thin layer between systems as I've been talking about in recent lectures ...


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