Bjarnason’s article offsets the cons of print and ebook forms quite beautifully. With ebook the likely loser of the contest’s outcome, Bjarnason, nevertheless, has the sagacity to not dismiss the digital form outright: “Ebooks, quite simply, have to improve.” I agree with that but I also argue that great text has the power to transcend its borders.
While Bjarnason proposes a beautifully designed, typeset, and packaged book does bring joy to the beholder, an ebook is not without its own attractions. Its permanence, for one, is untouchable. Its contents are fluid and transferable; the ebook itself is light and portable—one ebook is the mobile equivalent of your entire book shelf. A physical book is, however, restricted by its physical dimensions, not to mention lack of portability. Its packaged beauty is its vulnerability and its curse.
Ebooks as Bjarnason points out look worse than their trade paperback or hardcover counterparts but he also argues that it is simply a natural corollary to the fact that print and digital are two extremely different media to begin with. For example, choices of typography in the ebook might be restricted but that is a conscious decision of ebook makers. Some studies say that the eye generally prefers san serif fonts while reading online. But ebooks are still a growth area for fonts and typography. In the article Font swap in iBooks, Glenn Fleishman says Apple shipped iBooks for the iPad in 2010 with five font choices: Baskerville, Cochin, Palatino, Times New Roman, and Verdana. The latest iBook version still retains only Times New Roman of that lot with the addition of seven new fonts, six of which are serif and two san serif. Clearly, Apple is still experimenting with its reader.
The biggest boon of ebooks has perhaps been in the self-publishing field. In fact, the past and the present can be divided into two universes—one with Hugh Howey’s Wool and one without. Having written Wool as a stand-alone short story, Howey self-published it via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing system in July of 2011. In Wool by Hugh Howey — a review, Flood says, “By October, readers were clamouring for more, and he duly obliged. His novel now runs to over 500 pages and has hit US bestseller lists, with book deals on both sides of the Atlantic, and film rights picked up by Ridley Scott.” The self-evident fact here is that had the poor looks of a Kindle reader—as opposed to its beautifully designed and glossed nemesis—been a deterrent, Howey would not have turned into the sensation that he is today. He has inspired thousands more to join him in the self-publishing movement—all made possible by the emergence of the Kindle.
Then there are those kinds of books which teach, and make for more than interesting reads. These books already have a bright future in the digital form. With embedded media and other software apps, their tactile worth is far beyond what a print book can achieve.
Arion Press in the USA is considered “the nation’s leading publisher of fine-press books”. As Suich points out in Essay – The Future of the Book, “its two-volume Don Quixote with goatskin binding and lush illustrations sets readers back a bit more than $4,000”. As a novel that founded the work of modern Western literature, an amount of $4,000 can only come in the way of its worth—how many of us can afford an edition that expensive? Reading the text of this great “canonical” book here becomes the main objective, not the form it comes in—and for those looking for less costly versions, the cheaper the better. After all, Allen Lane, the late founder of Penguin, devised paperbacks not so much to give joy to its beholders but to make the book cheap enough for the masses to read. So isn’t the ebook simply carrying on that tradition?
The ebook might not yet do justice to the 500-year-old tradition of the print book as an art or craft or even as a precious object in people’s lives, but then again the digital revolution has only just begun. There is space and immense potential for improvement. And as far as the text of the book is concerned, the ebook is already doing its job—and doing it well. Ask Hugh Howey!