Why we need to read digital

 

Someone with a pretty sizeable following tweeted recently that reading digitally wasn’t really reading. Go read a book, you animals, she said. I wonder. What is a book?

The words. It’s the words, folks. Who is more deeply moved by the quality of the paper, than the words printed on it?

Yes, I understand that one can appreciate the tactile, but the paper and ink and glue is not why we read. To hold onto that is a sentimental romanticising — or a fetish.

What makes a book?

A book becomes ‘publishable’ when, after writing, it has been edited, designed, illustrated and typeset. Marketing and promotion start in the lead-up and continue after release. So, then what? What else makes a book?

First, we build and run machines to print words onto sheets of paper. That brings considerable environmental baggage starting with the trees, of course, but also from toxicity of inks and dyes and bleach. Then we cut those paper sheets into small rectangles and glue these printed sheets between thicker sheets. Sometimes we bind them into a solid casing needing more glue or stitching. More machines.

The supply chain

These printed and bound wads of paper need to be shipped. From printers, which may be anywhere in the world, to distributors’ warehouses to booksellers’ warehouses and then to retail booksellers. And bookselling is the great unknown. Finding out what sells, and how to sell it, is elusive.

If the bookseller is a shop, the books then go onto shelves. If it’s an online store, more warehousing. When they aren’t sold, they are returned: ‘remaindered’. More logistics, and warehousing is expensive.  A publisher never wants to print too many. These are pulped. Great for the environment, that step. Sometimes they’re pulped because the publisher doesn’t have room, and even though this book might have a readership, it becomes ‘out of print’. Time to move on. Shiny new authors are always around the corner. Sometimes books are pulped because they have an error. It might be a typographical error that is just too embarrassing (book production is a human process) or it might be a legal issue. More pulping. After corrections, then more printing. More packing, distribution and warehousing.

Profits are in volume

Sometimes the publishing house is very tiny, or the author is independent. The distribution of books between factory to warehouse and into bookshop is difficult, especially in a country like Australia with a tiny market but vast geography to cover. It’s expensive and exclusive. If you can’t get a distributor, you can’t get your book into bookshops. There’s a reason that publishing houses have become huge conglomerates (80 percent of books sales are controlled by only a few firms): this system benefits from economics of scale. Operators with volume.

Every one of these steps costs money. And none, none of the above, has anything to do with writing.

Digital is better for authors and for readers

When the financial returns to authors are so small, most make less than AUD$12,000 each year, what steps can be cut out?

Digital is better for readers who can download immediately and read more. We need more, better and cheaper ereaders and we need to be able to buy ebooks from multiple sources. I don’t want Amazon to have any more power than it already has. And we need more options to ‘gift’ ebooks than we have in Australia now.

It’s happened with music

This isn’t even new—we’ve crossed this threshold with music. Most music is streamed now and we’re all still standing, albeit with some nostalgia. I heard Zan Rowe interview Norman Cook (aka Fat Boy Slim) on Triple J recently. Cook seemed aware of an inherent contradiction between his desire for music to be played, and a certain wistfulness about today’s world. We can find and listen to anything anywhere anytime. But has something been lost, he mused? Has the passion gone? Growing up, he recalled the joy of finding copies of records which might only exist in one or two places and he loved them all the more because of the struggle to get them.

We will always need some print books: for libraries, for people with special needs, and for collectors. And books of photography, art, and design, of course. For this, there is print on demand. But for the bulk of trade, or consumer, books, we need to be buying digitally.

Is exclusivity part of the deal? Nope. It’s not. And I think most struggling authors would agree with me.

How do you read?

Reading a book seems a straightforward thing. Be it on a page, an e-reader, on your phone, even listening to an audio recording, we’re all in the author’s hands, following the same path on this journey. Interactive multi-media books might be coming, but they’ve not taken hold of us yet.

But I’ve recently been struck by the differences in how we carry out this simple act, how we engage with this experience. Readers have favourite ways to read. And like the Sydney Morning Herald journalist who recently wrote about her book addiction, it might be an experience so intense that it takes over your life.

Making space and time

Me? I’ve learnt to slow down. I read for the beauty of language, the clever construction of words as they create meaning and bring forth worlds.

I like to read uninterrupted—by kids, partner, fellow commuters, schedules. While I appreciate Danny Katz’s observation that the toilet provides just such a space, a numb bum takes away from the pleasure somewhat…

I won’t read until I have dedicated time to wholly engage, and in a comfortable spot. During the day, a Protestant work ethic kicks in and I feel I should be doing something else, but after dinner is perfect—on the couch, with good light and a glass of wine. Bedtime is good. Holidays and plane trips are good.

I won’t read on public transport because it’s just too bitty. Too fraught with having to engage with other people, or watch out for my stop. I worked for a man once who would read on the train to work, then along the footpath, and in the lift, only closing the book when he reached his office.

But me? I like to hold a finger in my page—or look up from an e-reader—and drift off into my own thoughts; I love the freedom of having nothing to keep pace with, nothing to miss if I wander away for a moment. And I love to reread a sentence over again, just to take in its wonder (and which is why I’m not remotely interested in audio books).

Respect!

I won’t read into the night when tiredness swamps comprehension and I find I am rereading a line three times. And I’ll stop when I start skating through, only reading for plot. Writing, good writing, is the hardest thing. When authors put their soul into each word, each sentence, to skim is to do them a disservice. That said, sometimes you just have to find out!

To share, and with whom…?

For me, reading is a solitary thing, an intensely private pastime. I’ve never wanted to join a book club. That kind of parallel reading, and sharing, leaves me cold. My own response to the author, what I take away, feels like my journey alone; other people’s responses are theirs.

But sometimes, of fellow readers, I will ask—‘What are you reading?’ It’s a shared understanding that one is always reading. I’ll ask because my kind of book club is between two only so when I find a reading soulmate, I ask. Like catching sunlight falling across a room, it won’t be there for long. A reader always moves on.

The sense of an ending

Do you pause between books? I recently read Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series straight through (thank you, digital age). But series aside, when I’m between books, I’m in one world and not ready to move into another. I’m a bit antsy in those few days, a bit disconsolate.

But there’s always another. I can turn to my bookshelf that holds just those I’ve not read yet. And it’s hard to resist the lure of an e-book, always available, just one click… (I’ve heard that Amazon patented that technology and can see why).

My own reading addiction ended with a mid-career change that took a second Master’s degree, and a steep drop in income. I became a professional editor when I realised that I cared more about the words in the documents than I did about the policy, or the politics.

When I have a fresh manuscript to get on with, I couldn’t be happier.

How do you read?

 

Anything is possible, Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, is an author of piercing insight. Many a religious and philosophical tome has been written on moral righteousness but in her slim books, Strout’s characters show us how to live a good life. They embody love and forgiveness.

Anything is Possible is a companion set of stories to her novel My Name is Lucy Barton (2016). The nine stories in this collection centre around an ensemble of residents in the small rural towns of Illinois, outside Chicago. Lucy had grown up there, in desperate poverty. She manages to get to college and then to New York where she becomes a writer. She has just released her memoir and her home town is confronted by an awakened sensibility. Some have read the memoir, others shun it, as they shunned Lucy, but its existence affects everyone.

Each story is defined by a complex life, a private pain, as Strout’s characters search for some way to cope with past hurts – some bury their history, some live in isolation and can no longer recognise an offer of help, others run away, or return home. As their lives intersect through the collection, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes as a backstory, the reader learns more about them.

Strout is interested in why people do the things they do, showing the complexity of human relationship – the pleasure and the harm:
Patty had tremendous sympathy for Angelina … But she wanted to say right now: Listen to this! Lucy Barton’s mother was awful to her, and her father – oh dear God, her father … But Lucy loved them … We’re all just a mess, Angelina, trying as hard as we can, we love imperfectly, Angelina, but it’s okay.

A woman’s private mocking of her host shows the pain of an unfulfilled life; a bed-and-breakfast proprietor who refuses to be bullied spits in the jam of an abusive customer; a janitor shows kindness in allowing a girl to stay behind in the warm classroom. The disparity between the fishbowl of the small town and the anonymity of the city is illustrated when a visiting festival director is billeted with a local couple – her claustrophobia and feeling of exposure in their home is palpable as the reader sees the smallness of their lives.

While those who have got away to the cities are understood to have ‘escaped’, Strout’s quiet recounting of routine tasks by those who have stayed shows the meaning in an ordinary life. Despite the snide remarks, bullying, and social exclusion, her ensemble of characters demonstrates how tiny acts of human kindness can change lives. A teacher who is openly scorned by a student overcomes her own pain to see the child’s greater hurt and helps her, laying a foundation for greater good. And when a woman who participates in her husband’s sexual perversion is confronted by a victim, Strout allows for her self-awareness showing that liberation can come through the courage of forgiveness: Almost always it’s a surprise, the passing of permission to enter a place once seen as eternally closed. And this is how it was for a stunned Linda, who stood that day in that convenience store with the sun falling over packages of corn chips and heard those words of compassion – undeserved …

Courage is also present in characters resolutely doing something they know to be right, but which is hard — embracing a man, recognising his humanity, when he has been shunned by all others.

The beauty of Strout’s writing is one reason to read and reread these stories ‘… and he did not know what he would do … the minnow darting through the stream of his anxiety …’

If you need another reason, Strout’s ability to confront us with the harm and sadness of poverty and mental illness, but without despair, is a marvel. She asks, Why do we do good? And her answer is a message of hope – because it leads to love. In the final story, Abel understands: ‘… perfect knowledge: Anything was possible for anyone.’
Elizabeth Strout Anything is Possible Viking 2017 HB 280pp $29.99

First published in the Newtown Review of Books, 17 August 2017.