“There’s a Benefit to Slowness” — The Form of Books & eBooks

To continue from yesterday’s thoughts on ebook design, here’s the Los Angeles Times (“Making books do things e-books can’t — and vice versa”), suggesting that the evolution of the ebook form could also spur a counter-evolution of the printed book form.

It’s funny how much attention gets paid to the e-reading device as an object of interest (at least, I know I spend way too much time looking at reviews of the newest Nook, or Kindle, or whatever). The L.A. Times article is somewhat of a refreshing change since it gives us a chance to consider the book — the printed book — as an object. I’ll admit, I’m not particularly interested in buying the sort of artfully designed books they describe, but the reflections on these books as objects of craftsmanship are interesting: “… physicality is part of their function; they are meant to be held as well as read.” Not that any of this implies the second coming of the William Morris* school of book design (no, not that William Morris), but the historical parallels are worth thinking about.

In the 19th century, there was a small, yet significant movement that looked backwards to what books had been, a sort of counter-movement to the increasing market of mass-produced books that made available cheaper and cheaper books (meaning, both less expensive, and less good). In other words, Old was the new New.

The sentiment I appreciated the most, in thinking about both the craft of book-making, as well as the way books are consumed: “There’s a benefit to slowness.” There really is. The lure of technology is that we can get what we want faster, smaller, cheaper (sometimes) … but I think we’d all agree that more efficient reading isn’t always better reading.

And what an interesting question:

“Are we writing books or producing content that can be reproduced in any form?” asked Ander Monson, a poet and essayist.

I wonder a lot about the answer to that very question. Is the line between book/content becoming less distinguishable?

For me, I always think of a book like House of Leaves. It’s the sort of unusual reading experience that’s hard to describe, because of its disorienting weirdness. As an enhanced ebook, it could seriously be awesome. As a straight conversion from its printed form to an ePub or Kindle edition, it just wouldn’t work; it couldn’t work.

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* For book history fans, check out this online collection from the University of Glasgow featuring William Morris and his Kelmscott Press:

“He set out to prove that the high standards of the past could be repeated — even surpassed — in the present … Noteworthy for their harmony of type and illustration, Morris’ main priority was to have each book seen as a whole: this included taking painstaking care with all aspects of production, incuding the paper, the form of type, the spacing of the letters, and the position of the printed matter on the page. Kelmscott books re-awakened the ideals of book design and inspired better standards of production at a time when the printed page was generally at its poorest.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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