Kathleen Jones on P.D. James and the Museum of Forgotten Books
“For those of us who love books – the smell of the paper, the design, the print and the type, the feel of the book as we take it down from the shelf – reading by machine seems an odd preference. But if we accept that what is important is the text, not the means by which it comes to the reader’s eyes and brain, it is easier to understand the popularity of this new resource.”
I fell in love with books almost before I could walk and would take books off my parents’ shelves and pretend to read them. Aged two I was caught sneaking a dictionary out into the garden.
Here in Italy I recently visited a small museum charting the history of the book from the earliest, gigantic, monastic tome to the latest paperback. There were some wonderful displays of metal letters and typesetting equipment - already obsolete, thanks to digital technology.
This book showed one of the earliest printing presses. If E-book formatting was this difficult, we’d never do it!
This book was the result. Imagine trying to get it through on the Ryan Air luggage allowance - bound in leather and embossed with brass, it's as big as a small suitcase!
Fonts, at first decorative, soon became adapted to easy reading – something we have to take into account for E-books too. Thankfully it is possible to insert text decoration into e-books as images, though you're still restricted to certain fonts for the main text. My partner managed to keep some of the William Morris scrolls and curlicues for the e-book edition of Christina Rossetti and it brings it much closer to the Pre-Raphaelite feel of the print version.
The production process for books has changed in more ways than one. I became an author at the moment when the balance in publishing tipped towards the Thatcherite principle that commerce must always come first – without any exception for the arts. I live with a visual artist and we both know what damage that has done for all art forms. It seems that things that are deemed only to feed the spirit have little or no value. Art has had to become commercial to survive and this has had consequences for Book-World. It has become more and more difficult to publish anything that isn’t seen as a certain money-maker. But salvation for authors has come in the form of the E-book, just as many publishers have – finally – lost the plot and are scurrying around in every direction looking for it (hint- some great plots on Authors Electric!). Some publishers are putting up walls against E-books, either pricing them out of reach or simply not making them available.
But others are wiser – particularly some of the small publishers who have become aware of what the E-book can do for them. One Canadian firm – BeWrite Books – has adopted an ‘E-book First’ policy. Here’s their manifesto:
“In 2011, after over a decade of independent publishing, our readers sent us a crystal clear message ... an overwhelming 98% bought our titles in digital editions rather than print. The jury has deliberated, returned, and the verdict is in. So, although the vast majority of our titles will also be available in paperback for some years to come, we are now one of the brave new millennium's Ebook-First publishing houses. Print now takes a back seat at BeWrite Books.”
How long will it be before more publishers follow their example, and the book as object becomes only a quaint exhibit in the Museum of Forgotten Books? Can E-books ever achieve this level of beauty, or are they simply conveyers of text? My guess is that the the book is already an endangered species and that E-book technology will become more and more sophisticated until the grown-up version will exceed all our wildest speculations!
Kathleen Jones is the author of more than 11 books of biography, fiction and poetry. She blogs regularly at 'A Writer's Life' Four of her titles are available on Amazon and Smashwords.
A Passionate Sisterhood
Christina Rossetti: Learning Not to Be First
Margaret Cavendish: A Glorious Fame
Three and Other Stories