Gutenberg, iPhones and “Far Beyond the Pale”

Update – 08-11-10 – ReadWriteWeb offered 5 reasons why paper books are better than eBooks. Kobo offers a host of free eBooks including every classic you’ll ever need to read.

It’s been at least ten years since I first started thinking seriously about eBooks and getting excited about the idea.  I had a Palm Pilot for work, and the display was poor and the Internet connection was horrible. But I loved the idea of carrying an entire library in my pocket. Still, I never even purchased the first book. The Palm Pilot is probably in some museum right now. Maybe the Gutenberg Museum we recently visited in Mainz, Germany.

Well, it’s taken me ten years to finally give it a try. What I needed was the right device and a strong reason to jump in. I bought an iPhone a couple years ago. But still, I didn’t download the Kindle app and a book until  my friend Daren Dean released his amazing novel, Far Beyond the Pale, on Amazon. I downloaded the app and fired up the book, and now I’m thoroughly enjoying both Daren’s excellent writing and the experience of reading a novel electronically.

Readwriteweb recently gave five reasons why eBooks are better than their paper ancestors.Though they highlight some amazing features of eBooks that aren’t available in the dead tree format, I wouldn’t go so far as saying this makes them superior. There’s still nothing quite like the smell of a fresh (or old and dusty) book, or the feel of pulp in your hands. There’s a sensory pleasure in reading a paper book that can’t be replicated digitally.

But the actual act reading, of experiencing words, even on the iPhone’s small screen, is just as engaging as reading on paper. You can make notes, highlight, save your spot. The iPhone allows you to flip pages with your thumb, adding a new level of touch to the experience that pressing a button can’t give you. The digital annotation tools are more efficient than the analog system of sticky notes, highlighters, bent corners and margin scrawls (albeit aesthetically less pleasing). The price is also fantastic. Daren is self-published, but I was able to buy his novel at a price on Kindle that allowed him a better profit margin (per copy) than if he’d connected with a traditional publisher.

Some writers and book lovers may think that the advent of eBooks is a sad day for novels, words and books in general. I think that’s pessimistic horse shit.

There’s also something nice about the short page length on an iPhone…it gives you the feeling of headlong progress (through the 4,000+ pages that Daren’s novel reaches in this format). I thought I’d need time to adjust to thousands of micropages compared to the traditional200-400 page length of a novel, but it’s been no problem at all. In fact, I appreciate being able to flip a page or two between giving my kid a bath or waiting for her to brush her teeth. It seems easier to dip in and out of a novel than reading a fraction of a longer, standard-length page.

Some writers and book lovers may think that the advent of viable eBook platforms is a sad day for novels, words and books in general. I think that’s pessimistic horse shit. eBooks may just be what saves the novel form in this digital age. The new platform introduces the novel experience to people who are used to consuming all of their information on a mobile device and wouldn’t otherwise think to read something of that length. It saves trees. It allows self-published authors to reach a global audience in minutes. It enhances the opportunity to deepen the novel experience with, say, video of the author reading or social highlighting and notes that give you an instant book discussion group. The future of the book-length manuscript would be far more precarious if they didn’t translate so smoothly to the Kindle, iPhone and iPad.

And it’s silly to think that paper books will die as a result of the growing popularity of eBooks. We all now have keyboards and mobile devices that shoot video and record audio. People write blogs and online diaries and send volumes of digitally composed email. But personal journals are as popular as ever. Moleskine notebooks are on sale everywhere. I see them in every coffee shop in Oregon, but I also recently returned from Germany and Italy, and they’re all over Europe as well. Every corner in Florence seemed to have a fine stationary shop, where Moleskines were the cheap option, and antique leather notebooks fetched ridiculous prices. There’s still a place for the handwritten word five hundred years after Gutenberg. People will always read paper books as well.

Girl printing in the Gutenberg Museum Print Shop

While we were in Germany, we stopped at  the Gutenberg Museum. My daughter joined her cousins in making prints in the museum’s hands-on print shop. She was thrilled by the tactile, mechanical experience of creating art in a method not unlike Gutenberg used when he printed his first Bible page a half millennium ago. This experience could never be replicated digitally. The art hanging on the walls of the print shop was innovative, and had a warm, comfortable feeling. Prints will be decorating walls for as long as I’m alive. Gutenberg’s invention brought the Bible and a host of other materials to the hands of people who didn’t have access to them before. He created a world of readers, expanding the simple practice of reading to the great unwashed. eBooks have the potential of bringing novels and book-length manuscripts forward, not only reaching people who already read them, but even introducing them to folks who never would have thought to pick up a manuscript on their own before.

Gutenberg Bible

So for writers and serious readers, there’s nothing to fear from eBooks. Bookstores will still exist. Some will flourish, and some will close. But books and novel manuscripts will persist. Writers like Daren Dean will be able to share their stories with friends on the other side of the country, and hopefully even reach a wider audience. Far Beyond the Pale is a compelling novel with an engaging voice. It’s a little raw, but it’s better than a lot of the pap that I’ve bought from traditional publishers in the past year. It also has a feeling of personal authenticity that other novels I’ve read recently. Maybe it’s because I know Daren, or maybe it’s because the digital age is allowing novelists to engage readers without the filter of big corporate publishers.

Daren is an amazing writer who surrounds his readers with voice-driven prose and rich, tactile imagery that comes through just as well on screen as it does on paper. And even traditional publishers and agents have been telling him for years that he’s an amazing writer, though, “the market is just too tough right now.” But today he’s now able to reach the audience he deserves.

Gutenberg would be pleased.

Published by David

Writer (Vintage), filmmaker (Three Days of Glory and Saving Atlantis), bookreader.

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