Tuesday, June 24, 2008

READ LIKE AN AMAZON: Howls From the Kennel

(NOTE: Stuck for a synonym? Messed up over metaphors? Iron a shirt. The order is simple: collar, yoke, cuffs, and sleeves before front to back to front. Few pleasures outdo a well-laundered and well-pressed cotton shirt. No polyester or poly blend comes close, and linen is only good for the extra hot days. Slip on the shirt and secondary erogenous zones will screech a happy holler. This is the writing life, at its most rewarding in the private moments.)

From papyri to parchment to paper, the book has followed innovation since the word was recorded. The clumsy and expensive Kindle promises to change the book again. Walt Mossberg kept a straight face while he interviewed Jeffrey P. Bezos, chairman, president, and chief executive of Amazon.com, for the June 9, 2008 issue of the WALL STREET JOURNAL. For a man who made millions selling books online, Bezos must not read very much.

BEZOS: Over some time horizon, books will be read on electronic devices. Physical books won't completely go away, just as horses haven't completely gone away. But there is no sinecure for any technology. If you think about books, it's astonishing. It's very hard to find a technology that has remained in mostly the same form for 500 years. And anything that has stubbornly resisted improvement for 500 years is going to be hard to improve.

THE DOG: What the heck does “some time horizon” mean? As far as a sinecure for printed books, they take a lot of effort by writers, typographers, and printers. From an idea to a finished book takes two years. Much of this is spent with the writing but to drop all the parts of the process into one puddle is senseless.

BEZOS: We see [Kindle] as an effort to improve upon the book, even though it's resisted change for 500 years.

THE DOG: The book mirrors technological change. Five hundred years ago type was set one letter at a time and dabbed with ink balls. Typography since has gone through every twist and turn imaginable, from Linotype to Monotype to photocomposition to digital. Some innovations have been more successful than others. Digital type sucked when it first arrived. Typographers put their heads down and solved the problems of the new process.

BEZOS: …you have to capture the essential element of a book, which is that it disappears when you get into the flow of the story. None of us when we're reading a book think about the ink and the glue and the stitching. All that fades away, and you get into the author's universe.

THE DOG: A good book is a collaboration of writer, typographer, printer, and reader. In Beatrice Warde’s essay, “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible,” she states, “The book typographer has the job of erecting a window between the reader inside the room and that landscape which is the author’s words.” This is done with the physical form, joined to make an engaging experience. To toss out the parts of a book is to prefer protein powder over a grilled lamb chop. What's for lunch, Jeff?

BEZOS: Sometimes big, heavy hardcover books do break you out of the flow because you get hand fatigue. Or turning pages can be loud if you have a spouse sleeping next to you. There are things about physical books that we're accustomed to but that actually aren't very good.

THE DOG: Get a gym membership. The main problem with the physical book are the twits that want to reduce it to a download commodity with no respect for the form.

BEZOS: But you also can't ever out-book the book. You need to look for a series of things that you can do with an electronic device like Kindle that you could never do with a physical book.
Some of them can be pretty simple, like dictionary lookup. I find I don't know what lots of words mean, and I used to guess because—am I really going to get up off of the sofa and go find a dictionary?

THE DOG: Reading is active, not passive. Unless the book is an academic treatise, most are edited for a ninth grade reading level so publishers don’t have to hear dumb complaints like this. Switch to network television for brain numbing.

BEZOS: Over the last 20 years, most of the tools that we humans have invented have made it easier for us to be information snackers. If one of the outcomes of Kindle and other devices like it [is] making long-form reading more frictionless so that you end up doing more of it, I think that's a good thing.

THE DOG: Do I have to make a comment on this? Information snackers have as much connection with knowledge as marmots do with knitting.


GRAMMAR GIRL is a Web site hosted by Mignon Fogarty, and deals with the everyday problems of putting thoughts into words so anyone, even Jeff Bezos, can understand them. Mignon has told Oprah about split infinitives and appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, and USA TODAY. On June 26, I’ll be the guest writer for her podcast on the use and nasty abuse of slang. She also has a new book coming out next month, GRAMMAR GIRL’S QUICK AND DIRTY TIPS FOR BETTER WRITING (NY: Henry Holt, $14.00). Check out GRAMMAR GIRL here.


“Book Proposals Basics for Beginners” is a one-day workshop taught by me and sponsored by Book Passage on Saturday, August 9, 2008. The event will be held from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM at 51 Tamal Vista Boulevard in Corte Madera, CA.

The book proposal is the single most important tool in the development of a book. It is a sales tool for the writer to find an agent, and through them a publisher. The proposal also provides a map for the final manuscript. Topics include query letters, writing for clarity, research, developing a platform, and working with agents. Sal Glynn is a freelance editor and writer who has edited more than 300 books for publishers on both coasts, and the writer of THE DOG WALKED DOWN THE STREET: AN OUTSPOKEN GUIDE FOR WRITERS WHO WANT TO PUBLISH. The gig costs $95 (an outrageous bargain) and enrollment is through the Book Passage Bookstore:
51 Tamal Vista Boulevard
Corte Madera, CA 94925
(415) 927-0960
(800) 999-7909
Fax (415) 924-3838

NEXT: Treeing the Cat

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Blogger The Precision Blogger said...

I think you're being too hard on Bezos, even though his arguments are hopeless.

First, your point about how books have indeed changed in the last 500 hundred years is mostly irrelevant. It's certainly true that for well over a hundred years, books have been USED the same way by almost all readers. How they are made (which has changed a lot) is not important when you're looking at the reading experience itself.

Second, it is ridiculously easy to point to an electronic aid that we book readers would love to have: text search. You can think of twenty ways to use that as fast as I can, so there's no need to belabor this point.

I've worked in software companies for almost thirty years that have tried to make paper unnecessary, and in the process I've developed an awe for the capabilities of paper, and of books. Kindle fails because it cannot match the amazing experience these provide, and Bezos is unlikely to succeed by focusing on only a few of the conveniences. I read books in bathtubs, I sometimes tear pages out that I want to keep (Darwin did the same). I love visible bookmarks. I love the relative permanence of paper. I love that paper and books do not require an operating system that might get out of date, or conceal a wicked security flaw. I've never had to recharge a book or change its batteries. I have books in my home that are almost 200 years old, and they still work. I've never had to read a manual to tell me how to read a book, except for James Joyce. The reading experience has stayed so nearly unchanged for 500 years because it is awesome.

- tobias d. robison tobyr21@gmail.com, author of Raven's gift

7:47 PM  
Blogger Poonam Sharma said...

Hi, I came across to your blog from Grammer Girl's. But the problem is your blog is too unreadable with white text on black base.

3:17 AM  
Anonymous Lester Smith said...

Sal, I get the impression that you've probably not actually read anything on any portable devices. While a dedicated device like Kindle or Sony's Reader or the old RocketBook may not fly, and reading a novel on a desktop machine may be too much like work, a PDA or cellphone can be a great way to carry a library in a pocket. A few years ago, I read Heart of Darkness, House of the Seven Gables, and a few other classics downloaded from Gutenberg.org, all a paragraph at a time on a Rex6000. Last year, I read War and Peace on my Ipaq 1940. These are only two examples; I read fiction and nonfiction daily on the Ipaq. The growing success of MobiPocket.com, FictionWise.com, and others would indicate that ebooks are here to stay. Whether the Kindle survives or not, Amazon has given ebooks another leg up in publishing.

8:11 AM  

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