On the publication of my first e-book

August 24th, 2012

Well, yes, I feel conflicted.

Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science is now available as an e-book. And I’m standing here with a mental balance scale tilting back and forth like a confused Statue of Liberty.

On the one hand, the beauty of creating with words is that they can be encoded in any form from papyrus to LED and then lifted from that coding to be resurrected in a human brain. It’s rather like DNA – information can continually start over in a new generation. Shakespeare’s words can be poured into the mouths of actors time and time again, costumed and re-costumed, re-imagined, re-rehearsed. We don’t have to pore over the pages of the First Folio to experience what the writer created.

Personally, I’ve never been a ‘collector’ of books. One copy of Alice in Wonderland is all I need. I used to get mildly exasperated at someone who kept buying me different editions of it for Christmas under the strange illusion that I’d like to possess more than one. I have enough books to squash on a shelf, thanks.

And yet, and yet … There’s another kind of continuity besides the constant reincarnation of words. It’s the way objects go on in time. Who wouldn’t want a chance to have that four-hundred-year-old First Folio volume on a table in front of her and turn its pages of a particular shape and heft and shade? It’s the one-of-a-kind pleasure of the plastic, visual arts – the way a painting or a clay pot is evidence of human craft and design, thought and muscle control.

Even if books have not been one-of-a-kind objects since the printing press began to turn them out in batches, they are still designed objects. They appeal to more than one sense; they are differentiated by weight and kinetic sensation and scent. But every book on my e-reader is the same weight and the ‘pages’ feel the same to my fingertips. The only sense I can apply is my over-worked visual cortex.

And even the visual cortex can’t use some of its basic skills when reading an e-book. Words may take shape in our restless heads, but it’s frequently nice to be able to nail them down on a page, to ruffle through them again and think “That bit was on a left-hand page about half-way down towards the back of the book….”

Yes of course there are search functions , and you can have sound files embedded in electronic documents and all that, but still… I’ll never think, “That bit came when the little bar on the bottom was about three-quarters of the way towards the end.”

Intersecting Sets – the print version – is a beautiful book. Designer Alan Brownoff has made it a little narrower and a little taller than the usual trade book dimensions. The royal-blue cover has the Mandelbrot set wrapped all the way around it – you’ll see the front on the e-version, but not the way it continues all the way around the spine and onto the French flaps. Nor will you feel the satiny cover, or see the elegant font chosen for the inside.

(It isn’t just me who finds it to be an elegant artifact. Alan has won a number of awards for it in the 2012 PubWest Book Design Awards and from the Association of American University Presses.)

The e-version is pretty good as e-books go. Some of the design features have been kept successfully. But it’s not the same and it can’t be.

So – tilt the scale one way – I’m glad to have an e-version out, glad people can order it from anywhere and not pay the shipping costs, glad that you can read it without the bleach and chemicals of paper, glad the DNA of my words can wiggle through the cyberworld to replicate itself without adding to the sag of bookshelves. Glad no-one is going to buy anyone collector e-ditions.

But I’m also glad to be on the threshold of this new world, with one foot in the old one. The days when a publisher would undertake to put my writing into a three-dimensional form.

With French flaps. Now that really tips the scale.

 

 

 

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