interview with cory doctorow in openbusiness 12.06.2005, 10:10 AM
posted by lisa lynch
There's an interview with Cory Doctorow in Openbusiness this morning. Doctorow, who distributes his books for free on the internet, envisions a future in which writers see free electronic distibution as a valuable component of their writing and publishing process. This means, in turn, that writers and publishers need to realize that ebooks and paper books have distinct differences:
Ebooks need to embrace their nature. The distinctive value of ebooks is orthogonal to the value of paper books, and it revolves around the mix-ability and send-ability of electronic text. The more you constrain an ebook's distinctive value propositions -- that is, the more you restrict a reader's ability to copy, transport or transform an ebook -- the more it has to be valued on the same axes as a paper-book. Ebooks *fail* on those axes.
On first read, I thought that Doctorow, much like Julia Keller in her Nov. 27 Chicago Tribune article, wanted to have it both ways: he acknowledges that, in some ways, ebooks challenge the idea of the paper books, but he also suggests that the paper book will remain unaffected by these challenges. But then I read more of Doctorow's ideas about writing, and realized that, for Doctorow, the malleability of the digital format only draws attention to the fact that books are not always as "congealed" as their material nature suggests:
I take the view that the book is a "practice" -- a collection of social and economic and artistic activities -- and not an "object." Viewing the book as a "practice" instead of an object is a pretty radical notion, and it begs the question: just what the hell is a book?
I like this idea of the book as practice, though I don't think it's an idea that would, or could, be embraced by all writers. It's interesting to ponder the ways in which some writers are much more invested in the "thingness" of books than others -- usually, I find myself thinking about the kinds of readers who tend to be more invested in the idea of books as objects.
Branko Collin on December 7, 2005 8:21 AM:
I was talking with a second-hand bookseller once, and told her that I had noted that there are two sorts of people who buy (print) books: those who want to read them, and consequently will only buy books they want to read, and those who want to own them, the collectors. Collectors will buy books from a series for instance just to own the complete series.
She added that there is a third category; those that buy books with pretty backs, so that they can appear well-read to their friends.
My guess is that the more the person is interested in a book as an object alone, the less they can be called readers.
Lisa Lynch on December 7, 2005 11:45 AM:
I'm not so sure it's that simple: there are many people who are both passionate readers and deeply invested in books as objects. It is interesting how, through the history of book-making, a love of reading has led some people to a sort of frenzied-book collecting that often takes the place of reading: Nicholas Basbane's book about book collectors, A Gentle Madness, touches on this idea.
You've also got me thinking about the literary trope of the "uncut book" that shows up in novels such as The Great Gatsby. In Gatsby and other novels from the 19th through early 20th centuries, a character discovers that the pages of a book aren't cut -- usually, the author means to suggest that the person who owns that book is more concerned with surfaces than ideas. And Ben just brought up the scene in Anna Karenina where Anna is riding the train and cutting open the pages she intends to read.
Already, this visceral metaphor for the acquisition of knowledge (the slicing open of a sealed page) is lost on a generation of readers who would have little understanding of what it means when a book is uncut. What future metaphors for knowledge acquisition might emerge for digital books? Could they possibly be as visceral?
Branko Collin on December 7, 2005 4:44 PM:
Whenever I open an ebook for the first time on my Palm Pilot, the little machine needs a while for who-knows-what before it starts to display the text. Annoying as heck! Is that the sort of experience you mean? :-)
The physical and the abstract will be separated. Perhaps other things will start to represent the access to knowledge. Rather than "I have a thousands books" (regardless of whether the speaker has read them), somebody could say "I have the time to read books".