Connectives Home    Tall Tales and Beautiful Books

Many booklovers seem to find the very idea of "electronic books" repellent, almost as if the fact that current technology for books on paper beats current technology for books in the ether means that current technology is the best that can be done. Is this the end of print? Does the end of the print mean the end of the pleasure of reading? I don't know, but it's interesting to guess what booklovers from earlier times might have thought....

One of my sillier indulgences is Star Trek novels. It started with the James Blish adaptations of first series scripts into some pretty awful short stories. I bought all the collections I could find, read them with glee, and went on to buy and read an embarrassingly large number of the novels. Some are pretty good, most are competent, and some are so bad they charm like a kindergarten concert. I have a particular soft spot for one that gallumphs through a formulaic murder mystery, vigorously signalling every plot hole, and incidentally demonstrating that Vulcans think with all the clarity of lemmings.

Enjoying genre fiction means enjoying its conventions, including some that stretch credulity a long way. But my credulity snaps at one convention of these novels: I can't believe how many of the good guys love and collect physical books. Priceless, "antique" books, with yellowing paper covered in text.

The last time I read this idea was in an electronic book on a Palm IIIx organiser. That really emphasised its quaintness.

Star Trek novelists aren't the only ones who manage to sneak comments about the bodies of books into their own works. Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the queens of British detective fiction, did it too.

Sayers' best-known detective is Lord Peter Wimsey, who first appeared in the 1923 novel Whose Body. In that book, Lord Peter is more a bundle of characteristics than a character: a collector of rare books and incunabula, facile with quotations, fluent in French and probably in Latin, a skillful and sensitive pianist who never needs to practise. By Busman's Honeymoon, published in 1937, Lord Peter's piano-playing has faded realistically into a love of music, and his reading habits fit easily with the quotations that adorn and illuminate his conversations.

Gaudy Night ends with Lord Peter's lady agreeing to marry him, and uses her intuition of his love for the writings of John Donne as one signal of their essential rightness for each other. In Busman's Honeymoon, each wants to give the other a manuscript of one of John Donne's letters as a wedding present. Seems that Sayers cherished both the body and soul of books, but that she, like Lord Peter, readily distinguished medium from message.

Contemporary with Sayers, and holding many of the same beliefs and attitudes, was English scholar, amateur theologian, and part-time fantasy writer C.S. Lewis. In his "spiritual autobiography", Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes the enormous significance of books and of stories in his childhood. In everything else he published, he demonstrates that reading was central to his life: even his populist books are full of casual references to other books that are far from populist. The importance of books led naturally to respect for books: "My brother and I might cut up stepladders without scruple; to have thumbmarked or dog's-eared a book would have filled us with shame."

But Lewis also says that he had to be taught "to love the bodies of books". He had no natural appreciation of layout, illustration, the sound and touch of paper, or the smell of covers. I think it's a fair bet that Lewis, technophobe though he was, would have been perfectly happy with electronic books as long as they were plentiful.

What about William of Baskerville, Umberto Eco's fictional Franciscan monk, detective, and pragmatist. William's love affair with the book is one of the great romances of fiction, and The Name of the Rose is a joyful celebration of his beloved. William's books were painstakingly hand-copied and illuminated, not typeset and printed. Their physical impact is immense; even fatal. And yet... William owns no books. His adoration includes books that he knows only as titles and doubtful quotations, and the true name of his love is knowledge. William seeks passionately after the message; he never notices the medium. Electronic books? Deo gratis.

William of Baskerville lives at the beginning of a wave of book-loving that might been cresting when Lewis and Sayers were reading and is now in retreat. William died shortly before the invention of printing. Lewis and Sayers died shortly before the invention of digital media. William reads a language of images - on paper, on wood, and on stone - as fluently as he reads a language of words. Lord Peter Wimsey is seldom without a book on his person, but derives particular pleasure from the illustrations of a fourteenth century manuscript because they are "extremely delicate in workmanship, and not always equally so in subject." While we ride the books-in-print wave, text is supreme.

I love words and I love books. But it's obvious that there's more to communication than words and there are more ways to present words than in rows on pages in books. Typography and document design are venerable trades, directly descended from the painstaking work of the monks among whom William of Baskerville travelled. Over the centuries, these practitioners have developed techniques to support or obscure any printed text, and their work continues as technologies and media change and develop.

Two books currently on my deskside shelf encapsulate the status of information for the eye. Karen Schriver's Dynamics in Document Design is a superb overview of the history and current state of knowledge of document and information design. This book covers so much ground that I can't summarize it further than that: it includes typography, audience analysis, industrial design, page layout, reader studies, online information, consumerism, educational and persuasive brochures for kids, academic politics, interplays between text and illustration, plain English movement, and... and... I sometimes argue with it, but this is one of a tiny group of my books that I don't lend to anyone.

If Schriver's book is a bird's eye view of current knowledge, Robert E. Horn's Visual Language is an ant's eye look at a possible next step. Horn suggests that a new human language is emerging that consists of tightly integrated verbal and visual "communication units", and his book is an attempt to use visual language to describe visual language. In one way this makes it another overview of current information design: it covers many of the same disciplines as Schriver's book. But Horn is not hovering above a landscape. He's looking back from the foot of a cliff, trying to build an idea of how the scene will look from the top.

Visual language enables the giving and receiving of multiple sets of information in parallel. One way to imagine what that might mean is to imagine drafting, accepting, and using equal employment opportunity legislation with only spoken words and human memories: no writing or print. Could it be done? Probably, but the result would be vastly different from the systems that we have now. Writing freezes speech for reconsideration and transmission, and in so doing it shifts the way people use and process oral languages. That's the kind of qualitative change that's beginning now. Visual language might be one emerging result. Electronic books are one enabling technology.

Dynamics in Document Design is a quietly beautiful book, and I have serious trouble imagining it off the printed page. Visual Language is downright ugly in places. But I can envisage reading it from a screen with radically different proportions from those of these printed pages. Looking at Visual Language, the book, it's possible to imagine how visual language, the tool, might enable both the subtlety and depth of good document design and also the flexibility of pure text, which can be presented and understood on just about any medium. At the moment those two good things tend to exclude each other; as you can see whenever you try to print an article from the Web or read an online imitation of a paper page.

The Star Trek stories begin a couple of centuries after the invention of digital media. Devices for readers are already generations better than they were when the Star Trek novels that cracked my credulity were written; I think there's good reason to expect them to attain and surpass the portability, flexibility, and beauty of books within my lifetime. That's well before Captain James T. Kirk will be born. By his lifetime book collecting will surely be an eccentricity, as contrived and out-of-the-mainstream as oral storytelling is today.

November, 2000

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