Monday, 26 January 2009
Will books still kindle our creative fires?
Today post is by guest Karen Bruns, who shares her thoughts on books in the digital age.
I'm totally sold on the idea of (almost) instant reading pleasure. My idea of heaven is to be the guy in the library in the Robin Williams movie "What dreams may come". Actually, heaven in that movie is enough to make me a really good girl... all that wet paint!
But officially the Kindle is not available in South Africa yet, so I asked Karen for her thoughts on our relationship with The Book.
Over to Karen:
As a child I really wasn’t that keen on the idea of school – institutionalised hell had been my brief experience at the local Maltabella-enriched playgroup. But what were the options at a time when Veldskool was the educational antidote to the perils of suburbia? 70’s South Africa did not see any advantage to individualised home schooling.
Bloody-minded and unwilling, I only agreed to enlist at the local primary so that I could learn to read for myself. My adults were undisciplined, needing to “rest” their eyes too frequently and skipping pages crucial to the storyline. I just had to go and do it for myself. Then I’d be out of there faster than a racehorse on five legs, or so I thought.
I was smugly reminded of this well-negotiated, but poorly structured, deal by my mother as I came over the hump of my third degree and contemplated a fourth. After two dozen years, had I still not learned to read, she asked.
Growing up, books were my escape from provincial ugliness. They provided the symbolic tunnel out of there. Anyone who has ever loved a book knows that it goes beyond the story – there’s the feel of the book, the weight of it, its smell. But with books, we say, "It was a real page-turner - I couldn't put it down." We don't talk about addictive books.
But I know fellow-addicts when I see them and in April, London’s Earl’s Court is teaming with them. London Book Fair season – the annual international event where publishers and agents all exhale hype, in a desperate effort to keep the reading world churning. It is neither refined nor genteel. There are no long, lubricating lunches. The LBF is a war zone and you have got to be a combo of devilish Miranda Priestley, fast-talking Jerry Maguire and tenacious Robert Mugabe to survive Day One.
On Day Two, you’ll have reread the biographies of Kissinger and North, and Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War, before opening and if you don’t have a battery of parallels up your sleeve, to deal with contract-flush editors’ lack of imagination, you’re a P.O.W. “This manuscript could be the racy love child of Richard Dawkins and Toni Morrison” or “a spiritual thriller that is the essence of Paulo Coelho as told by Ian Fleming”. Frankly, it’s enthralling.
The Fair talk last year was equally contradictory in its excitement. In 2006, the Sony Reader with its awesome screen was born. I heard reports that e-ink looks like paper (well, as close to paper as anything that's not paper can look). Now we have the Amazon Kindle, with the Bezos promise that you can now have "any book in the world in one minute or less" - except when a book isn't available. Once it moves beyond the borders of the United States – it rolls out to the UK in 2009 – Amazon will be in a prime position to more easily extract money from stony wallets.
It's designed especially for the impulse shopper and the entire device works on the concept of "One Click" ordering. The idea is that if you hear a review of a book, you can get it immediately. If you read a nice book cover at the airport bookstore, you can buy it before you even know that your flight has been "further delayed".
The paperback book sized Kindle screen has a clean interface. But that's not all. It has a mobile web browser – you can check e-mail with gmail's mobile interface. It has the potential to be quite the handheld computer if Amazon allows it. The Kindle has its own email address so you can send yourself PDFs for mere cents (US) and they'll show up pretty nicely.
There's a collection of newspapers available, including the New York Times, so that reading the newspaper can naturally fit into your day much more cleanly now. I'm told that in the US the wireless is surprisingly fast - this means that you don't have to dock ANOTHER device into your computer.
It's apparently glorious - but not perfect. The Next Page buttons run almost the length of both sides of the thing, which means consciously avoiding accidentally turning pages. Also, there's a chance that you may fall asleep holding the buttons and find yourself with a dead battery and on the last page. From a design perspective, neither the Sony Reader nor the Amazon Kindle is sexy. The iPod designers were clearly not invited. For the navy-socked and black-shoed amongst us, you probably won't care. It just works. Well, it works if you're in a decent-sized US city, in other words it isn't even coast-to-coast yet.
It also costs more than most people would like it to, but if I'd use it every day to read the newspaper, I'd buy it. The issue, however, is this: Do I really want to read a book on it? When I forget the middle name of the hero of my story, do I really want to be scrolling? Do I want ANOTHER battery operated device in my bedroom (don't ask!)? Will I be able to read in the bath? Thank goodness I don't have access to a US credit card and all these decisions can await another day in Gondwanaland.
Karen Bruns heads up marketing at the HSRC Press (www.hsrcpress.ac.za), but writes here in her personal capacity. She is a voracious reader – from autobiographies to travel ezines – and as a result of her personal contribution to deforestation thereby, she is anxiously interested in environmental issues. Articles that she has written about her many forays near and far have been published in national and bespoke magazines – but she still can’t travel with only a cabin bag and she has no ambitions of being a Space Tourist.