Ode to the physical format
Some time ago, I watched a wonderful video by Vox, on the success of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The video explained how the novel’s success was made possible by the invention and spread of paperback books.
Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, To Kill a Mockingbird was at the pinnacle of the “paperback revolution”. Being the fruit of enormous narrative skill, politically urgent, and widely available for cheap in paperback format, it was soon adopted as the pedagogic tool of choice of millions of English teachers across The United States of America. That is how the educational system was partially responsible for the novel’s rise to its current position as an American cultural institution.
In this occasion, I’m not interested in discussing Harper Lee’s opus, but the format to which it owes its status.
Paperbacks have been surpassed by e-books, in all the qualities that made them convenient: portability, low-cost, and wide availability. Too many people have to commute for three hours daily, carrying a portfolio and a supplementary personal bag loaded with cumbersome and heavy objects. If an individual condemned to that sort of daily physical discomfort has within their possibilities to digitalize their reading material, they will most likely do so. The long trips from their home to their workplace and back, might bear the only nice stretch of time in which they can indulge in the reading of some mesmerizing mystery novel of sorts – they could be reading the 800 pages long The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, for instance.
I celebrate the possibility of digitally carry books that would be heavy and clumsy to maneuver with in the circumstances in which they would be read. It can make reading convenient and desirable for people who don’t have enough time to sit down to read in a still spot, or who want to carry many books at the same time, in very little space.
Regardless of this advantage, currently, e-book sales have been dropping and, book sales, on the rise. The landscape isn’t joyful, anyhow, literary fiction has rarely seen darker days and writers hardly make enough to live on.
Forgive my feeble memory. A couple of weeks ago, I read an article which now I cannot find, wherein a member of the publishing industry – a middle-aged man, whose first name, perhaps, was Bart – complained about insufficient strategies to modernize and digitalize publishing. He argued that we should let go of physical books, that we should let them die out, and push digital publishing further and more intelligently. We are clutching to the past and it’s pathetic.
Physical book sales fall and rise by seasons. Same with e-books. As shown in the previously quoted material, the prosperity of the digital written word is threatened by audiobooks. Those who want to consume literature in spite of uncomfortable conditions will try to do so through their ears now. And, those who enjoy books in the physical format, seem to do so due to aesthetic reasons.
I first grew interested in books years before I knew how to read aloud with great difficulty. I first liked how books looked. The home I grew up in was cluttered with books. My father’s studio has the biggest home library I’ve ever seen in a modern house – this might be due to my sorry social status, but, regardless – I grew up surrounded by books, and the mere sight of them comforts me. My apartment is plagued by columns of books. I enjoy the sight of them, I enjoy touching them, and I like how they smell. I’ve read a couple of essay collections and novels in stolen-pdf-format, as well as in legally-downloaded-epub format, and concluded that it’s not enough for me to be able to access the information, the written material, to put it in the most disgusting terms possible: the content of the book. I need the aesthetic experience.
While e-books are readable and writable, there is a delight I derive from the sensory experience of reading and of taking marginal notes, that e-books, even when presented in software that allows notetaking, fail to emulate.
By the way: Some people, considering my treatment of books, would prefer for me and those of my low breed to keep our hands off physical copies, particularly of expensive or early editions, for to write on a book is, in their view, to tarnish it forever.
Those who systematically study books as objects recognize books’ capacity of being read and written on, as one of its affordances. There is a long tradition of writing on books, not only for the purpose of intellectual masturbation, but also for the purpose of spiritual exploration. The Middle Age’s books of hours, which were designed and hand-confectioned by monks for the personal use of the wealthy and religiously compromised, held in their pages enough space for their users to write commentary.
Note-taking is among the most fulfilling of interactions that one can have with a book.
As a literature student with scarce, humble experiences in barrio publishing projects, and, therefore, as an outsider- like blind Tiresias, I predict that the publishing market will polarize. Those who want to squeeze their literary interests into a tight schedule will consume ebooks and audiobooks increasingly, and those readers interested in books as aesthetic happenings will sustain a market of high-quality, hardcover books. The space occupied by the paperback, between digital books and, say, the thick, glossy and heavy art books produced by Taschen will be hollow. Those who derive sensitive pleasure from reading, will create a market for increasingly innovative paper art pieces, and those who desire portability will fuel a stable rise in sales of audiobooks and ebooks. I hope I’m right because this is the sort of future I’d be enthralled to participate in.
Eleven days ago, Publishers Weekly reported:
While hardcover sales posted another solid gain over the first half of 2017, trade paperback sales were just about flat with the prior year. Unit sales of mass market paperbacks finally show real signs of bottoming out with units off 3% compared to 2017; in the first half of 2017, unit sales of the format were down 9% compared to the first six months of 2016. And the end seems near for physical audiobooks. While sales of digital audio have skyrocketed, unit sales of CDs fell 28% in the first six months of 2018, compared to the same period a year ago.
Oh, well. What do you think? How wrong am I? What is your format of preference?