An article in the LA Times in late December, “Making books do things e-books can’t — and vice versa” by David Ulin highlighted an interesting trend that bucks the movement toward electronic books. Called “slow reading” by its advocates, it features works such as “Torture of Women” published by Siglio Press, which has a red cloth cover and an embossed title. Another work, “Vanishing Point” by Ander Monson, makes clever use of alternating columns and pages without any margins. It includes “italicized daggers” to indicate where readers can put down the hard copy and go to the Internet for additional content.
Two other examples of these “illuminated texts” include “Tree of Codes,” which dissects “The Street of Crocodiles,” a collection of stories published in 1934 by Bruno Schulz, leaving behind literal holes where text used to be, and the most recent issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a literary journal which is packaged as a box shaped liked a man’s head. Inside, editor Brian McMullen asks “What would your head look like inside?”
Of course, none of this artistic embellishment is possible in an e-book. But such embellishments aren’t necessarily new, either, nor are they just a response to the “quick and dirty” world of e-publishing. One pop culture example that comes to mind is from the sitcom Seinfeld: Kramer’s coffee table book that was actually a tiny coffee table with fold-out legs.
Still, books like these do cause us to stop and ask a few important questions: just what are authors writing, anyway? Books? Or is a book just a physical container for words, and is what writers are actually creating stories, essays, and novels? The music industry went through a similar problem of semantics when vinyl albums gave way to cassette tapes and then CDs in the 1980s and 1990s. The problem came to head when music went mega-portable in the 21st century.
For decades, artists released music in “albums,” which was literally an album in the dictionary sense: a folding paperboard book with an artistic cover, literature inside that may have included lyrics or a folded wall poster, and a sleeve that contained the vinyl record itself.
When cassettes and CDs came along, the package was still an album of sorts, albeit a much smaller one. The elaborate and often beautiful cover art was smaller but still present, and there was still room for a tiny folded booklet and lyrics. But it was a far cry from the giant, pizza-box sized packaging of the vinyl LP that was an artistic creation and statement in and of itself.
The final blow was struck with the advent of the iPod and the sale of individual songs for $0.99 each. Gone in all but the most superficial form was the album art, the liner notes, the posters, the ordering of songs and the musical flow that musicians and record producers once created, when playing music was a linear experience defined by placing a needle on a plastic disc and flipping it over after four or five songs. While Beatles fans who first heard Sgt. Peppers on vinyl instinctively know that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” follows “With a Little Help from My Friends,” today’s music fans may never own an entire release from a current artist, much less listen to it from start to finish. And what to call these new recordings? Albums? Records? Those terms are antiquated and recall a physical, analog era.
No doubt the book publishing industry is experiencing the same growing pains, but 30 years after it began in the music publishing world. Is there room in the future for creative, artistic, hard-copy books like those published by Siglio Press? If history is any guide, the answer is yes. Even while iTunes makes millions on dollar downloads, musicians still produce special editions of their music—multiple-CD boxed collections that contain hefty books, posters and photos, often to commemorate an anniversary or a tour. And with hi-definition TV and home theater systems becoming commonplace, these collections are even taking the form of DVDs: entire concerts in a collector’s edition box, filmed in crystal clear high-definition and recorded in Dolby 7.1 surround sound. These leather-bound, gilded collections of ear candy for die-hard music fans are truly the audio equivalent of the “slow read.” If anything in the music world offers hope for those passionate about the physical printed book, it’s this.