Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The French press

I've been trying to read books on my iPad. The experience is barely okay, maybe a little better than reading them on a Kindle or a Nook because of the backlit screen but nowhere near as comfortable as reading them in printed form. This is not a dismissive rant -- I really have been trying. I swear. After all, I'm a publisher and use my iPad all the time to read manuscripts. It has saved me a great deal of paper and lightened my shoulder bag. However, the reading experience is objectively a poor one, fatiguing, superficial, lacking focus, even slippery. Which is too bad, because as a publisher I make a helluva lot more profit on each ebook I sell than I do on a printed book. No manufacturing costs, no storage and shipping fees, and no returns. I should be rejoicing, along with the rest of the ebook boosters, conference organizers, and techno savants out there shilling for Amazon.

But I'm not. Why? Because the ebook reading experience is really only appropriate for ephemera: perishable journalism, short pieces, escapist reading, self-published vanity writings -- linear narratives written in simple prose that don't require an active grappling for comprehension. It has the effect of trivializing works -- literature or serious nonfiction -- meant to last longer than the memory of last year's literary awards ceremonies.

I'm neither a Luddite nor a reactionary. Because my father was a data processing manager at a brokerage firm on the Street, I started playing with computers in the late sixties. I doted on his stack of punch cards (they made great bookmarks) and got a kick out of his flowcharting template. The diagrams he drew were a key to progress: logical, graphical, even a bit artistic. I used to write little programs in Fortran and Cobol for his firm's IBM 360 as a hobby and then accompany him to his workplace and walk through an air-conditioned roomful of vibrating tape drives. The storage and retrieval of data was a hot and noisy enterprise back then. Soon PCs came along. In the late 1980s, we compiled a parish mailing list for St. Mary's using Hypercard and ran our little label-making routine on an Apple SE with 2 MB of RAM and a floppy disk drive. I remember carefully feeding the dot matrix printer by hand to avoid jamming. We also programmed the SE to draw portraits in alphabetic characters and taught it to play astrological games with the calendar. The development of computing was exciting and fun. (Whereas ebook readers are neither exciting nor fun, just drab plastic gadgets that display text. Whoop-di-doo.)

So technology doesn't scare me. In fact I like most machines. But I don't like it when machines are used to do things they're not intended to do. When I see someone trying to loosen a joint by pounding it with a steel hammer or trying to tighten a screw with a knifeblade it grates on my nerves. Even worse when a sophisticated device is employed to perform a trivial task, like using a global positioning system to locate the nearest hamburger joint or firing up a laser to remove unwanted facial hair. Or relying on a microchip to brew a cup of coffee. (I especially despise those supposedly convenient Keurig single-brew machines -- how wasteful can you get?)

Personal computers and their successors ('smart' phones, tablets) are brilliant at performing tasks involving bits of data -- searching, retrieving, storing, organizing, displaying, aggregating, calculating, transmitting, translating, and so on, following the instructions that they've been given by human programmers. Asking them to display written text on a little screen and mimic the attributes of a physical printed book is essentially dumbing them down. (Even worse is asking them to act as a portable TV screen! The apotheosis of the information age: Youtube, Hulu, and Netflix.) Can you imagine all the technological savvy and programming prowess embodied in an iPad? And what do we ask it to do? Display a copy of a cheap Kindle bestseller. How lame can you get?

When I read the boosters and apologists for ebooks -- those who laud Amazon for having 'changed the game,' those who characterize legacy publishers as obsolescent and possibly senile gatekeepers, those who write and publish their own silly little books and believe that riches will ensue, those for whom instant gratification and bargain pricing trump all else when purchasing 'content,' those who profit from constant churn in the marketplace and the envy-stoked public's insatiable lusting after novelty, those who blithely speak of new paradigms without having come close to mastering the old paradigms -- when I read their barking ad copy prose (complete with exclamation points), I shrug and swipe to another page.

Who cares? We've always had hucksters painting a rose-colored future, dependent on whatever gadget, gizmo, ointment, or scheme they're selling. They do it by making their target consumers feel small, behind-the-times, out-of-it: if you don't subscribe to our gilded vision of the good life, you're a dinosaur. These sleazy salesmen have been a fixture on the American scene since the founding of the nation, which is why American homes -- including mine (I claim no immunity from the blandishments of Madison Avenue) -- are filled with so much useless (and wasteful) crap.

The iPad is by no means useless. It is an elegant conveyer of a massive amount of disparate information via email, the web, and a host of clever and time-saving apps. I like it a lot. But it is shitty substitute for a book. (I'm sorry this turned into a bit of a rant, but I still think the best way to brew coffee is with a French press -- stirring the grounds and depressing the plunger by hand.)

No comments:

Post a Comment