More Kindle, Schmindle – Further Thoughts on Books, Stories, and Pages

By | February 27, 2012

I’m still not convinced that eBooks are as successful literary devices as print books are, or even that they have as great potential. (They have other potential – speed and info abundance and portability – but they fall short, I believe, in pure storytelling impact.)

Compare how differently each stimulates the use of brain, especially the creative imaginations of the readers. In children’s books, an example is the book by Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, winner of a 2008 Caldecott Medal.

(It led, of course, to the movie Hugo, which then built its own imaginative story-rich world appropriate to that movie medium.)

For those interested in books and literature, it’s worth reading this speech by the author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret book, with insight into the power of the book and the printed page.

In his speech, Selznick considered the secret of the magic of a book:

And the secret was in the page turns.

Think about the wild rumpus in Where the Wild Things Are. The pictures grow until they take over the entire book and there is no more room for words. Only the reader turning the page can move the story forward. We are put in charge at the exact moment Max himself takes charge. We become Max, all because of the page turns.

Ultimately, it’s about the power of the story, not the medium. But many of the best authors (and publishers) are still working with the printed page, and it’s not because they don’t know better.

It’s like the testimony at the 2012 Oscar Award ceremony a few nights ago, as a host of silver-screen actors commented on the impact that going to the movies had on them. It was a story of a rich experience, often a communal one, and one where the size of the screen, with its ability to draw one into its depths, and the immense commitment of the actors and directors to the quality of that experience, rang loud and clear. They may not have said it out loud, but they were arguing against grand movies turned into small-sized shrunken videos seen on a tiny iPad or Kindle, or against the amateur immediacy of YouTube – at least when quality is concerned.

Brian Selznick also references, in his speech, a “brilliant little essay,” titled “A Page is a Door,” by one of his own book-making heroes, Remy Charlip:

A book is a series of pages held together at one edge, and these pages can be moved on their hinges like a swinging door. . . . Of course if a door has something completely different behind it, it is much more exciting. The element of delight and surprise is helped by the physical power we feel in our own hands when we move that page or door to reveal a change in everything that has gone before, in time, place, or character. A thrilling picture book not only makes beautiful single images or sequential images, but also allows us to become aware of a book’s unique physical structure, by bringing our attention, once again, to that momentous moment: the turning of the page.

Yes, Charlip and Selznick are talking here about picture books. But I’d argue that a similar phenomenon takes places, with a more subtle nature, in chapter books. For some reason, we understand and enjoy the finiteness of the page, the feel of the paper, the curiosity of what lies on the other side.

Consider another series of books of recent success: the Harry Potter series. For some reason, millions of fans wanted to buy and read hardcover books. Yes, this was in part because it was the only format the books were first released in. But there was also a sense of community. Kids and adults stood in lines, got their books, and sat and read them, joining in a real-life worldwide community of readers focused on a very tangible thing: a new novel by J.K. Rowling. Was there a prestige of being the first to have and hold those pages?

Would those books ever have succeeded had they been conceived, released, and existed only as eBooks? I suspect that the physical existence of all those printed books and all those readers of all those printed books . . . and the ongoing presence of the books on shelves in home and bookstores and libraries . . . has something to do with their success.

And . . . if they were only released as eBooks, would the author and publisher have even bothered? (See my argument for the effect an eBook-dominated approach would have on authors – especially authors of longer works – in my original Kindle, Schmindle post on this Writer’s Handbook blog.)

If nothing else, I’m encouraging people not to jump on the eBooks bandwagon because of a misperception that it’s somehow “the future of books.” Let’s look more closely at the medium and what’s being done with it.

Will eBooks ever capture the same excitement of getting a real copy of [your favorite book here] and curling up in a comfortable chair to open the cover and begin to turn the pages?

Until eBooks can deliver that kind of magic, I still have a preference for the printed book.

4 thoughts on “More Kindle, Schmindle – Further Thoughts on Books, Stories, and Pages

  1. Sylvia Dickey Smith

    Wow, Philip. You expressed my feelings about the magic of the printed page (and of many others I talk to). That, and the big screen, where one is taken inside the story as if one of the characters. Thank you for your hold on sanity in this burgeoning world of technology.

    Reply
  2. Spalva

    I do agree with you. The idea that I wouldn’t be able to smell the pages of a book makes me very sad. The thing is, though, the Kindle saved my book-starved life — and that of my kids as well. We’re expats, you see. I was floudering without books (we don’t work for the US government so we can’t move the contents of a 7000 sq. ft home around the globe). If I weren’t an expat I could not see the point of owning of a Kindle.

    Reply
    1. Philip Martin Post author

      That’s an excellent point, and I agree wholeheartedly that this is a particularly valuable role for a Kindle or other eBook reading device. Good use of the technology!

      Reply

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