It’s a story likely to make some readers queasy. Several British libraries have begun working with a direct marketing firm to stuff inserts into books at check out. “They’re going to be inserted right next to the panel with the return date on it, which means that everyone will look at them at least once,” said Mark Jackson of direct marketing company Jackson Howse. However, Guy Daines, the director of policy at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, however, is concerned about the “creeping commercialisation of library services.” I’ll second that.
A little over three years ago, in a fit of apparent insanity, a New York-based independent press bought a sizeable chunk of the short-story collection I’d been working on and published it as a stand-alone volume. I remain proud of the book, A Field Guide to the North American Family, which was reissued last month in paperback. A lot has changed since the end of 2007, though, and the new edition has me thinking again about a couple of misapprehensions I was laboring under at the time of its writing. The first was that inserting an “illustrated fiction” into an otherwise un-illustrated cycle of stories was just the thing to ignite the bidding war that would make me a millionaire. (Thanks a lot, W.G. Sebald!) The more important, related misapprehension, though, has to do with “the future of the book.”
In college, I had been an extracurricular binge-reader of 1960s and ’70s “experimental” literature, in secret rebellion against the masterpieces-only Atkins diet that comprised my coursework. Even in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that the novel of the future would incorporate as much Cortazar and Cather, as much Willie Masters as Wilhelm Meister. History had different ideas, as usual. Two weeks after my exuberantly book-y book came out – replete with color photography and typographic mayhem – Amazon launched the first Kindle, which sold out in less than a day. The book of the future, it turned out, had a built-in battery. And what I’d just published would never work on it.
Then again, as my therapist suggests (though my accountant begs to differ) maybe this accidental Kindle-proofing is a blessing in disguise. My nostalgia for print, after all, is something like Balzac‘s for the wooden printing press in Lost Illusions:
At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses…. [Now] the rapid spread of machine presses has swept away all this obsolete gear to which, for all its imperfections, we owe the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest…
In the novel that follows, Balzac links speedier and more efficient printing technology, and the larger cultural pressures it stands for, to the artistic failures of his would-be hero, the “provincial” Lucien Chardon. Unable to withstand the allure of a fast franc, Lucien becomes in Paris whatever is French for “sellout.” (Not to mention – horrors – a critic!) But I would become no Lucien Chardon – not with Field Guide, anyway. To “sell out,” you first have to sell, and in committing to the ideal of the “beautiful” book, I had pretty much guaranteed that this particular project would remain unsullied by commerce.
Now, in honor of the future that never was, the durable pigments of the almost obsolete, I offer you the following trade secrets to fellow writers. The availability for the Kindle of some of the titles mentioned below points to the difficulty of the task; nonetheless, here are:
Seven Ways to Kindle-proof Your Book
Step 1. Use Color
The iPad and Barnes & Noble’s NookColor have already gone some way toward countering this strategy, and Amazon is rumored to have plans to follow suit with a full color, full-functionality tablet. As of this writing, however, the top-selling eReader, the Kindle, remains a black-and-white only affair. I suggest, then, that all of you aspiring Kindle-proofers out there familiarize yourselves with the color palette on your word-processors. You may, as Mark Z. Danielewski does in House of Leaves, choose to assign a single word its own color, like the sodapop in the old Cherry 7-Up commercials. (Isn’t it cool…in pink?) Or you may opt for a subtler approach, à la Richard Flanagan. In Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan uses a different color for each chapter, to represent the different dyes employed by his ichthycidal narrator. Still not persuaded? I once heard that Faulkner planned to use different-colored type to distinguish the different voices in As I Lay Dying. If it’s good enough for a Nobelist, isn’t it good enough for you?
Step 2. Illustrate, Illustrate, Illustrate
In an essay published in The New Yorker a couple years back, Nicholson Baker complained that “photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen” of the Kindle. Of course, as with Step 1, the iPad complicates things, and glossy (“glossy”?) magazine readers are apparently “flocking” to the NookColor. (Constant vigilance is the price of Kindle-proofing!) But it’s worth pointing out that, where words on a page are an abstraction of an abstraction, illustrations are only one representative step away from the visual world. And so the venerable tradition of the illuminated manuscript still seems to favor, at this stage of the game, the codex book. No wonder that, as writers grow anxious about the fate of print, we’re seeing an uptick in illustrated fiction; it’s the literary equivalent of abstract painting’s retort to photography. (This is to say nothing of graphic novels.) Lavishing attention on hand-made illustrations – as in Joe Meno‘s Demons in the Spring – or incorporating photographs, like Rod Sweet and Tim Williams‘ Instructions for the Apocalypse or Leanne Shapton‘s Important Artifacts, is a great way to add an extra exclamation point to your literary pooh-poohing of the eReader.
Step 3. Play With Text, Typeface, and White Space
eReaders currently use two approaches to rendering text. One is quasi-photographic, but the Kindle’s remains the more battery-efficient method of imposing a standard typeface. This makes the effects of a textually playful book like Danielewski’s House of Leaves or Karen Tei Yamashita‘s I Hotel or William H. Gass‘ The Tunnel – difficult to render on a Kindle. If you want to up the degree of difficulty, you can try combining this with step 1, following Gass’ lead in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, wherein text in a range of typefaces and sizes curves and distends and floats around and behind the illustrations. And then there’s white space. Mallarmé may have got there first, but Blake Butler‘s There is No Year is moving the ball forward. It’s available for Kindle, but only the good Lord and Jeff Bezos know how it reads there. (I don’t think I need to point out the irony of the Amazon customer review for A Visit from the Goon Squad that finds “the ‘powerpoint’ chapter…extremely difficult to read on the Kindle.”)
Step 4. Run With Scissors
The opening story of John Barth‘s Lost in the Funhouse, famously invites readers to take scissors to it and create a Mobius strip. This cut-up aesthetic is more literal in Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes, which slices and dices the pages of Bruno Schulz‘s Street of Crocodiles to create pages like lace. It’s a piece of found prose-poetry whose sentences change as you turn the page. Except on the Kindle, where it doesn’t – and couldn’t – exist.
Step 5. Go Aleatory
Narrative fiction, as Vladimir Propp would tell you, need not proceed in a straight line. Presumably, the HopScotching of Cortazar’s Rayuela would be easy enough to approximate via hyperlink on a Kindle, as might something structured like Raymond Queneau‘s “A Story As You Like It.” But what about a story where the order of the pieces genuinely doesn’t matter. Or one where an Oulippan element of chance is built in? A narrative like Coover’s “deck of cards” story from A Child Again, say. Or B.S. Johnson‘s The Unfortunates, which consists of a beginning, an ending, and 25 middle chapters to be shuffled and read at random. Speaking of The Unfortunates…
Step 6. Put It In A Box
Gass at one point imagined reinforcing the random, “pile of pages” aspect of The Tunnel by printing it loose-leaf and selling it in a box. It can’t be any coincidence that, in the age of the Kindle, the book as boxed set has been making a comeback. New Directions, in addition to The Unfortunates, has given us the slipcovered (and thus far unKindled) Microscripts of Robert Walser. McSweeney’s, another box-loving press, has delivered any number of issues of the Quarterly, not to mention One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in boxed form. And in 2008, Hotel St. George Press published Ben Greenman‘s archetypally box-intensive Correspondences, albeit in a limited edition.
Step 7. Pile on the End Matter
This strategy exploits not so much a technical weakness of the Kindle as a practical one. My theory is that, because the number of pages remaining in a book aren’t palpable on a digital device, readers are less likely to go digging around in appendices, acknowledgments, and so forth. The endnotes function on the Kindle apparently makes it pretty easy to jump from the main text to the famous fine print of Infinite Jest. But with other kinds of end matter, aren’t you likely to hit “The End” and think: I’m done? Writers who sneak interesting and potentially meaningful information into the back of the book are thus a step closer to Kindle-proofing than the rest of us. Here I’m thinking specifically of William T. Vollmann, whose resolutely booktacular books often contain dozens, even hundreds of pages of end matter (interesting in direct proportion to the interest of the main text.) Or Walter Benjamin‘s Arcades Project. But I was struck, reading Georges Perec‘s Life A User’s Manual this spring, by the way the various indexes and appendices offered a variety of possible reformattings of the main text.
Bonus List: 10 Pretty Damn Kindle-Proof (at least, as of this writing) Books:
1. Nox, by Anne Carson (Rules Exploited: 1, 2, 3, 6): In many ways, this boxed version of a mourning journal Carson made after the death of her brother is the paragon of the Kindle-proof book: a book built out of books, and alert to its own status as an object.
2. The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Steps Taken: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5): The chief attraction of this slender posthumous work is its Chip Kidd design, which invites readers to cut out facsimiles of the notecards Nabokov composed on and make their own book…though, given the $35 cover price, I can’t imagine too many readers took Kidd up on it.
3. A Field Guide to the North American Family, by yours truly (1, 2, 3, 5): This is probably the only excuse I’ll ever have to insert my name in a list between Nabokov’s and Jonathan Safran Foer’s. There. I’ve done it.
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (1, 2, 3): A Kindle version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually exists, but, even if Amazon were to insert an animation, there is just no way to achieve in e-form the flip-book effect on which this novel’s conclusion rises…and falls.
5. The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman (1, 2): Okay, this is actually pretty easy to recreate on an iPad. But who would want to read this gorgeous thing on a screen?
6. Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic (5): The chief Kindle-resistant feature of Dictionary of the Khazars is that it is actually two books: a “male version” and a (slightly different) “female version,” bound back to back. You move from one to the other by flipping the book over and starting from the other end. Kindle that, Amazon!
7. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (1, 3, 5): Unlike House of Leaves, the National-Book-Award-nominated Only Revolutions is too insanely Kindle-proof to actually be a good book. I found its main text – which takes the flip & read logic of Pavic a step further – to be a hackneyed pastiche of Finnegans Wake. But you can’t blame a guy for trying.
8. One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, by Raymond Queneau (4, 5): This echt-Oulippan “poetry machine” is a set of 10 sonnets, bound to a spine, but with incisions between the lines that extend out to the edge of the page. Readers can manipulate the pages to form and reform sonnets. Mathematically, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In theory, an eBook equivalent of this would work beatifully (you’d just have to build in a “shuffle” function) – though by equivalence rather than reproduction.
9. Rising Up and Rising Down (the unabridged version), by William T. Vollmann (2, 3, 5, 7): In theory, this should be the perfect eBook candidate, in the sense that no one wants to lug the damn thing on the subway. It is, in a sense, almost all appendix. I’d bet dollars to donuts, though, that, via the logic sketched in point 7 above, no one would ever get through a digital edition. Vollmann’s detractors would argue that’s a good thing. I’m not so sure…
10. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1, 3): The brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are, as a children’s librarian once pointed out to me, is not just the illustrations, but the way they gradually expand to fill the page spreads (what’s called a full-bleed)…and then recede again into white space. It enacts for children the dialectic of wildness and safety that is the book’s explicit subject, and has, this librarian insisted, a deeply therapeutic effect. Wild Things, that is, uses its book-ness beautifully. You could reproduce this on a screen…but unless the aspect ratio was 2:1, it would have to be in thumbnail form. Perhaps the solution, as Reif Larsen has suggested, is to get away from the idea of reproduction altogether. Rather than deluding ourselves that the eBook is a book, we should think carefully about the effects each can achieve that the other can’t, and then work to find equivalents between them. And lo and behold, a fantastically inventive app of Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Steps Taken: 2, 3) is now available for the iPad…perhaps pointing the way to yet another future of the book.
Several schools will be getting rid of books. It’s not as bad as it sounds though. Pearson a company that publishes educational materials (and owns Penguin, incidentally) has been promoting a plan to replace textbooks with digital materials. The company was able to convince California to try it out, disclosing “on Monday with its half-year results that about half the state’s elementary school students will learn about the American Revolutionary War and Thomas Jefferson using an interactive computer program,” according to Reuters. Pearson is hoping to expand the program to more states and more subjects.It’s an interesting idea. On the one hand, computer programs probably have the ability to provide a very rich learning experience, especially when compared to some of the unimaginative textbooks that kids are subjected to. It is also probably cheaper than providing textbooks. On the other hand, I have to wonder what might happen if books were eliminated from the learning process. What will kids think of books when it is no longer necessary to carry them around all day. I suspect that books would come to be regarded as even more archaic than they are today. Thoughts?
The book world’s big news today was Amazon’s unveiling of the latest iteration of its eBook reading device, the Kindle 2. You’ll see that the device itself is now remarkably thin (even to those of us who now take tininess in devices for granted). As the promo copy says, “just over 1/3 of an inch, as thin as most magazines.” There are also a number of other incremental advances to the hardware and interface, though nothing earth-shattering. The real news, to this observer, is that the Kindle remains a key element in the slow and fragmented (when compared to other media) but inexorable shift in how people read. I’ll have more on this topic in a few days. In the meantime, Kindle fans (I know there are quite a few of you) commence rejoicing, and Kindle curmudgeons commence grumbling.The new Kindle starts shipping in two weeks. Kindle 1 owners who order by midnight get to jump to the front of the line.Bonus Link: Kindle: Amazon’s New Firestarter
A week ago, an article in the New York Times created a mini-furor in literary circles. As the resident Japan expert in my circle of friends, everybody was asking me, “So what’s the deal with these cell phone novels?”The NYT article was the first I’d heard of them. I did a quick Internet search, and what do you know? The Times was right, they’re all over the place. Google spits ups thousands of pages, and several of the more popular novels are listed on the Internet Movie Database as films in production.What does this mean for the English novel? Is this the future of literature? In Japanese, maybe. There are a number of features of Japan’s language and culture that make a cell phone novel more palatable than it would be in English. First, Japanese grammar is much better suited than English to the kind of short sentences writing on a cell phone encourages. As a high-context language, a complete sentence in Japanese can consist of just a single, lonely verb. Japanese speakers and writers frequently and freely omit subjects and objects from their sentences, expecting the reader to figure out what’s going on. Go figure. The use of Chinese characters also serves to compact sentences. Since you don’t have to actually spell out entire words, as in English, but can represent them with an ideogram, you can say a lot more in a much smaller space.Secondly, and perhaps just as important, cell phone novels tap into long traditions of Japanese prose and poetry. First, even a cursory examination of a cell phone novel will show a visual connection to the poetic traditions of haiku and tanka. The connection doesn’t end there, at its best the writing itself has an economy and – I’ll regret saying this – poetry that taps into the same tradition. The medium – you try typing a novel on the keypad of a cell phone – forces the writers to make every word count, and (in Japanese at least) it shows. The themes, as well, harken back to traditional Japanese themes. The first “modern” novel (written by Murasaki Shikibu in 11th century Japan), The Tale of Genji, was basically a high school love story, and nothing has changed since then. In manga, on television and in literature, the amatory exploits of high school students have always captured the imagination of the Japanese public. And the long, long literary tradition there, combined with the frequent use of public transportation, means that books in general, whether written on cell phones or not, occupy a much more important place in Japanese culture than in the West.So what are these cell phone novels like? For the curious, I’ve translated a short passage from Sky of Love, the number one best seller by Mika, recently made into a movie. I’ve only read the first chapter, but apparently it’s a heart wrenching tale of young love, as seen through a Jerry Springer filter of premarital sex, teen pregnancy, gang rape and mortal disease. Enjoy.Translation note: Two things. First, I’ve done my best to preserve the sentence structure and formatting of the original (at the expense of clarity and good prose, I’m afraid). This is more or less how it looks and reads in the original Japanese. Second, it’s common in Japanese for people to refer to themselves in the third person. The protagonist here does that frequently. It’s a habit that’s considered somewhat childish and endearing.Sky of Love (the novel in Japanese, for those who’d like a visual reference.)PrologueIf I hadn’t met you that day…I don’t think I would haveFelt this bitterness.This pain.This sadnessCried this much.But.If I hadn’t met you…This happiness.This joy.This love.This warmth.I wouldn’t have known that either.Today, I’m going to look through my tears and up at the sky.Look to the sky.Chapter One– A smile”God, I am so hungry♪♪”Finally lunch time. Felt like I’d been waiting forever.Same as always, Mika puther lunchbox on her desk and opened it.School is a drag.The only thing I like about it is eating with Aya and Yuka, my friends from class.–Mika Tahara–She’s a freshman, who started at this school in April.It hasn’t even been three monthssince she got here.She’s met some people she likes and gets along with. She’s had some pretty good times.She’s short.And stupid.And not that prettyDoesn’t have any special talents.Or even know what’s she wants to do with herself after graduation.Bright, tea-colored hair she dyed right after she got here.She’s wearing a little makeup, but it looks strange on her, especially at this time of day.She stumbled out of middle school and right into average.She had normal friends.She had normal crushes.She dated three guys.I don’t know if that’s normal, or what.But, what I know is normal,is that those relationships all ended fast. That’s what she’s saying.She doesn’t know real love.All she knows is how to fool around,Just that.Love…Who needs it?It was right then…I met you.Mika’s life: she expected it would end in the same boring way it had begun. Meeting you was going to change all that.Like always, Mika and Aya and Yukawolf down their food.Why is it everyone gets so quiet when they eat?The classroom door rattles open,A guy with one hand in his pocketwalks overto the three of them.That guy, he stands in front of themAnd he starts talking. Casually.”Hey! My name’s Nozomu. I’m in the class next door. You heard of me?”The three girls look at each other.They pretend they don’t know what he’s talking about.Just keep eating their lunches.Since I’d gotten to school, I’d heard a lot of rumors about Nozomu.A player.A flirt.A playboyIt seemed like he was walking around schoolwith a different girl on his arm every day.”Watch out for Nozomu!””If he’s got his eye on you, you don’t stand a chance.”Didn’t somebody tell me that…?He’s got a well-proportioned faceon a tall body.Highlights in his hair,styled with wax for that “casual” look.Eyes looking right at you, like they could see… something.He’s got the right stuff for getting girls. There’s no question about that.The problem is his personality.Maybe… if he was a little more serious…With all those rumors floating around. I don’t even need to tell you I’m not interested.The three girls continue eating their lunches, pretending they haven’t even noticed him.”Hey, now. You’re ignoring me? Let’s be friends. ♪ Come on, give me your number.”His insistence makes me thirsty.Mika, annoyed, grabbing a bottle of barley tea in one handgulping it all down.”What do you think I’m going to do? It’s cool. Just tell me your number.”There’s silenceSuddenly, Aya breaks it.Mika and Yuka, looking at each other in disbelief.Aya gives him her number with a smile.It’s hard to believe this is happening.I wait until Nozomu has left the room, all puffed up and full of himself. Then turning to Aya, blurting out:”Why would you give your number to a guy like that? He’s trouble.”Aya responds to Mika’s worry, like it’s no big deal.”What can I say? I like cute guys. Ha.”Aya’s a mature, beautiful woman.She’s stylish and her best feature isher long hair, a little wavy, and the red-brown of tea.She’s got bad luck with guys. All the ones she’s dated are just playing with her…That’s why, even when she gets a boyfriend, it’s just a few dates, quick break-up, repeat.”Aya. Don’t get serious with a guy like that.”To Yuka, with the serious faceAya turns and lightly replies.”Don’t worry about it.”School lets out.I go home, and lay around in my room, watching TV.That’s when…♪Ring♪The ring echoes through the room.There’s no name on the caller id.It’s from a number that’s not in my phone.I wonder who it is…I pick-up to find out.”Hello…?””…”… silence.”Hellooo…”I say it with a little more self-assurance.Click.Beep, beep, beep.They hung up.Prank call?Probably a wrong number.♪Ring♪Again, the ring echoes through the room.The same number as before.They’re not going to say anything anyway, I think.So, I answer like I don’t give a shit.”What?””…lo? Hello. Hello?”On the other end of the line, I can faintly hearthe sound of an unfamiliar man’s voice.”Who is this?”The guy on the other endshouts in a voice so loud I think it’s going to blow out my eardrum.”…Mika? The signal’s bad! It’s Nozomu! You remember? The guy who talked to you at lunch today!”WTF? Nozomu?The Nozomu who hits on all the girls? That Nozomu?The guy who got Aya’s number today… That Nozomu?I start to panic.I can’t findthe words to reply.I should just hang up. Shouldn’t I?
Publishers Weekly has a very interesting article about newspaper book sections which points out that, with the exception of the New York Times, book review sections do not bring in enough ad revenue to cover their costs.Those of us who follow the newspaper industry are used to hearing all ills blamed on declining readership, but those quoted in the PW article essentially take the publishing houses to task for failing to support book sections outside of “their hometown paper, the New York Times.” Of course, one could easily point out that if readership were to rebound, ad revenue would as well, but the article does make a compelling point.Publishers (who in many ways are just as endangered as newspapers) bemoan our dying literary culture, but then fail to support it in one of the last places where it is clinging to a foothold. I’ve never been a publishing industry insider, so I don’t know if things are just bad all over (perhaps someone can enlighten us), but I wonder if publishers are to blame here, or if they have simply found that the dollars spent in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and LA Times, don’t help sell many books.In the Comments: Jerome Weeks, the Dallas Morning News book columnist mentioned in the PW story, gives us some additional thoughts on this issue.
Today, the Publishers Lunch newsletter pointed to a post at Engadget indicating that Apple might make eBooks available through its iTunes Music Store.How would this work? Well, it wouldn’t work on current iPods, but speculation is rampant that the next generation of iPods, likely out in time for the holiday season, will have a much larger screen, one that takes up the entire face of the device. (There’s a mocked-up image of what it might look like in the post linked above.) When turned horizontally, the iPod would allow for a screen four inches wide and almost two and a half inches high, not a lot of real estate, but then again, people watch movies on video iPod screens even smaller than that. Some further details:A separate trusted source let us know that the next iPod will have a substantial amount of screen real estate (as we’d all suspected), as well as a book reading mode that pumps up the contrast and drops into monochrome for easy reading. It’s no e-ink, sure, but a widescreen iPod would be well suited for the purpose, and according to our source, the books you’d buy (presumably through iTunes) won’t have an expiration — kind of like Apple-bought musicNow, I know from previous posts on the topic of eBooks, that this news will likely make many readers of The Millions say that they will never read books this way and that they would miss the look and feel that books offer, but I’m curious as to whether this effort would take off amongst the less-discerning broader public.What interests me in particular is that this offering would differ from previous eBooks that I’ve talked about. In earlier posts (here, here, and here) about various incarnations of eBooks, I’ve talked about how useful they might be for textbooks and technical books but also how challenging it might be to get customers to embrace them.The iPod, however, as it has in other realms, would change the rules. Some thoughts (sorry, but I’m thinking in bullet points today):By offering books through iTunes, publishers would suddenly be able to put their books in front of young readers who perhaps never go to book storesThe marriage of the book and the iPod would launch old-fashioned books into the twenty-first century. The iPod association would up the cool-factor for books big time.One of the problems with eBooks is that nobody owns the devices to read them. Obviously that would no longer be an issue.Apple already has a distribution system in place, iTunes, that lots of folks are already comfortable using.Anyway, I’d love to hear thoughts anyone might have on this. I don’t own an iPod and probably won’t get one any time soon, nor can I imagine myself ever being a serious consumer of ebooks, but I still think it would be cool to see kids (and adults) walking around reading books on their iPods. Actually, maybe I will get an iPod after all.