via The Paris Review
via The Paris Review
What may be more insidious is the pressure to fiddle with books for commercial reasons. Because e-readers gather enormously detailed information on the way people read, publishers may soon be awash in market research. They’ll know how quickly readers progress through different chapters, when they skip pages, and when they abandon a book.
The promise of stronger sales and profits will make it hard to resist tinkering with a book in response to such signals, adding a few choice words here, trimming a chapter there, maybe giving a key character a quick makeover. What will be lost, or at least diminished, is the sense of a book as a finished and complete object, a self-contained work of art.
Not long before he died, John Updike spoke eloquently of a book’s “edges,” the boundaries that give shape and integrity to a literary work and that for centuries have found their outward expression in the indelibility of printed pages. It’s those edges that give a book its solidity, allowing it to stand up to the vagaries of fashion and the erosions of time. And it’s those edges that seem fated to blur as the words of books go from being stamped permanently on sheets of paper to being rendered temporarily on flickering screens.
There is so much to unpack here! It seems so weird that there are laws that keep private what library books you borrow (i.e. the titles), yet, if you’re an ebook reader, someone’s analyzing how long you pause on each individual page. I suppose it’s analyzed in the aggregate, but still. Somewhere, someone knows what you, individually, are doing. I guess that’s also true of the library info, but again, they only know the titles of the books you read, and again, laws.
Beyond privacy or the lack thereof, how accurate is that kind of info anyhow? Maybe you just got distracted by something. You know, like when you leave a browser window open for a half a day. You’re not actually spending 12 hours reading a 500-word article. You just haven’t got around to reading it yet.
And the rest gets into the whole literary vs. commercial work, especially when you’re talking about fiction. Everything I’ve read about ebooks makes it seem like people are more keen on fiction ebooks than nonfiction ebooks. This just seems backward to me. I totally see the benefits of ebooks for books that are frequently updated (guidebooks, textbooks, etc.). There’s also the convenience. Physical textbooks are heavy/bulky; with ebooks you can have them all with you at once. Same for guidebooks. These kinds of books are about the content, not the form. They’re also, frequently, works for hire, written by multiple authors working for a corporation.
But fiction? Fiction is an art. It’s a creative work. There’s an emotional investment in the work on the part of the author. While it’s true that some authors have revised work after publication, this is their own choice. Suggesting that writers revise their completed/published work on the basis of market research (i.e. reader feedback), changes the whole artistic process. No longer would the writer whose name is on the work be the sole author, whether or not this acknowledged. This is not to say this can’t (or hasn’t) been done; it’s just that it’s a different creative process.
You can see this how this happens by looking at the evolution of blogs. Early blogs were clearly the product of individual writers, but at this point, the voice of any blogger who has a substantial readership and continues to blog, has been drastically affected by their readers (& sponsors/advertisers). What they write and how they write it is a collaborative, not individual, process. (It might be a subconscious effect, but it’s still there.)
Revising published fiction based on reader feedback would be like an artist revising a painting after reading the comment cards from the gallery where the painting hangs, then rehanging it, so that the visitors who see the revised painting are seeing something different than the original visitors did, even though the painting has the same title. Would this change be acknowledged? Or would it be something that is not mentioned unless a visitor happens to return and notice the difference? And would the changes continue? Would the process be repeated again and again? And what happens when the artist dies? Would someone else continue the revisions? And how does all this revising affect new output? Is the artist so busy revising things already created that s/he has no time to create anything new? Shouldn’t an artist’s energy be put into new projects?
So many questions.
We adults live in a linear world in which we grew up with pen and paper and printed books and now wait impatiently (eagerly or with trepidation), wondering when digital is going to replace all of that. As if the flow is all one way and inevitable. But Josie lives in the world of now. In her world, people use fountain pens to write for recreation. They use phones to talk and text and email. They gather for family dinners and talk about their dreams and desires. Printed books and digital books are different experiences that nestle comfortably alongside each other. Live theater is as thrilling as a 3-D movie. Sometimes you sing and dance and sometimes you listen to your iPod.
Josie teaches me to live in the land of Now. To be grateful for the ways that I can reach out electronically without giving up nestling in front of the fire with a hardcover novel. When I read the debates between Kindle lovers and the devotees of printed books, I think of Josie and think that we are being very foolish.
The codex is built for nonlinear reading – not the way a Web surfer does it, aimlessly questing from document to document, but the way a deep reader does it, navigating the network of internal connections that exists within a single rich document like a novel. Indeed, the codex isn’t just another format, it’s the one for which the novel is optimized. The contemporary novel’s dense, layered language took root and grew in the codex, and it demands the kind of navigation that only the codex provides.
Earlier this week, Randy Cohen, “The Ethicist” at the NY Times, wrote a column titled “E-Book Dodge.” Of course, the interwebs freaked out. Nathan Bransford’s post “A Matter of Ethics” is representative of the “omg! what was he thinking?!” side, and John Scalzi’s post “On How Many Times I Should Get Paid For a Book (By Readers)” (appropriately enough) is representative of the “ehh, whatever” side. Both posts have 100+ comments. It’ll take you a while to read them all if you choose to do so.
Anyhow, there’s a lot of rhetoric on both sides to wade through, but what these arguments (whether it be books or movies or music) come down to–the question that we really need to address–is what are you paying for? And here I don’t mean what do the corporations say you are paying for. I mean, what is the reason you are willing to fork over $x.00 of your hard-earned money for that movie/album/novel. Are you paying for (a license to view/listen to/read) the content (intellectual property) or are you paying for the object itself (personal property aka chattels) or are you paying for both? And is there there a difference between types of intellectual property and their delivery mechanisms?
Let’s look at music. Back in the day, albums came on things called records. Records were big, flat discs with grooves. Nowadays people re-purpose them into kitschy art projects. The discs were encased in sleeves. Record album artwork and liner notes were a Big Deal. Early cassettes were inferior to records, not only because of the quality of the music (hisssss!), but because you didn’t get the album art or liner notes. There was usually a thumbnail of the record cover on the front of the cassette and inside, just a list of the songs. Cassettes like this were extremely disappointing! Nevertheless, people bought them because they were convenient: you could play them in your car (if, you know, you were old enough to drive), or on your (faux) Walkman, or in your bedroom on your “ghetto blaster” (I know, soooo ’80s). Eventually, though, I guess someone figured out that cassette-buyers felt like they were being ripped off, and album art and liner notes came to cassettes. They also started to get more creative with the cassettes themselves (e.g. different colors, transparent plastic). Those cassettes were so superior to the ones that didn’t offer anything but the music. A lesson was learned from this, apparently, because CDs always came with proper album art and liner notes.
In both cases (cassettes & CDs), though, the inserts that contained the cover art & liner notes were (because of their size) considered inferior to the sleeves that records came in. And then came mp3s, which stripped away the object entirely. Ok, yes, mp3s can have (virtual) album art and liner notes attached, but… you’re not going to ever be able to turn them into a bowl or a lamp. And, you also can’t (legitimately) sell them or trade them or give them away.
So, let’s break down what you get when you buy a…
When you buy a record or a cassette or a CD, you take ownership of the physical objects involved, but you do not own the music or the cover art or the liner notes. What you’ve purchased is a license to listen to the music, view the cover art, and read the liner notes. Ownership of the content remains with the creator (or if it’s work-for-hire, the corporation who did the hiring). Ergo, when you buy an mp3, because there’s no tangible object involved, there is no transfer of ownership. As with the record, cassette, and CD, what you’ve purchased is a license to listen to the music, view the cover art, and read the liner notes. There is a difference, however. When you buy tangible media, you can be assured that your license is in perpetuity—forever—or at least as long as the physical medium remains in good condition. Your cassette may wear out because you overplayed it, but no one from the band or the record company or SOCAN is going to sneak into your house and take it back. They might want to! but they can’t because it would require them to take your personal property back along with the license to listen to the music. With intangible media, there is no such barrier. The license to listen might have a built-in self-destruct, or the license might be revocable at any time (who reads all that fine print anyhow ;-)).
By most measures, the mp3 is an inferior product: the music quality generally isn’t as good as a CD, you don’t get anything tangible to hold in your hand, to look at or read, and you don’t own anything. Yet, at 99c per song, you’re paying pretty much the same amount for an album in mp3 format as you would for an album on CD. And there’s no way of ever legitimately recouping any of your costs, should you ever have a need or desire to do so. You can’t sell your iTunes library at a yard sale. Plus, there’s that pesky potential that someone could just take your songs away.
So why buy mp3s? Well, we all know the answer to that. Convenience. Not only can you shop from home and get your music instantly, but you can easily play it in multiple places: your computer, your iPod, etc. The ability to carry your whole music collection with you at all times, to be able to effortlessly transfer it from one device to another when you upgrade (as you inevitably will), is, of course, the major appeal of digital media. When you think about it that way, it makes sense that people would be upset by any DRM that blocked them from transferring music from one device to another or put limits on how many devices they can listen to it on etc. People have been willing to give up the tangible aspects of a music purchase, as well as the security of that purchase (this is mine), because the benefits of digital media (when not tampered with) were a reasonable trade-off. DRM is an attempt to take away those benefits without providing anything in return. It’s lose-lose for the listener.
There’s one other issue, and that’s transferability (or convertibility). Back in the day, people would often buy the record (the superior product), then make a cassette copy to listen to in the car (or wherever portability was more important than quality). When CDs were introduced, the same thing happened. But because CDs are digital, they also had the advantage of being able to go the other way: they could also be turned into mp3s. Just like the cassette-copies, however, the mp3-copies are downgrades. I have to think that if you’re a music aficionado, the CD is still preferable to the digital download. Assuming no DRM, and the ability to transfer the CD’s contents to your iPod or whatever, the only real disadvantage is that CDs take up space. But if you’re a music lover, you probably want your collection on display, you want to be able to grab an album off the shelf and analyze the cover art and study the lyrics and all that good stuff.
I guess my point is that there’s a tendency to say that people who want the tangible object as well as the content are fetishizing the object, and I think to some extent that’s true. But dismissing that desire solely as fetishization would be a mistake because there are obviously advantages to owning the tangible object in addition to having a license to listen to the content. You might care about those things or you might not; the point is that they do exist. It comes back to: what are you paying for?
At the same time, unless you’re a collector, one tangible version is probably plenty. When you think about the fact that some people have probably purchased record, 8-track (gasp), cassette, and CD versions of the same album, it’s understandable that they’re fed up with paying again for something they’ve already paid for five times over.