The latest bold prediction about e-books

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I couldn't very well pass up and article from Slate called "Why e-books will never replace real books," despite rolling my eyes at the title and expecting the usual "I like the look and feel and smell of paper and you'll have to pry my copy of Moby Dick from my cold, dead hands" argument that most articles like this put forward. But Jan Swafford surprised me this time by building off the work of Marshall McLuhan, and she almost pulls it off.

Without getting into McLuhan's theories on media in this summary, Swafford's main argument is that the computer screen is a "cool medium" with low visual input, and we process words on a screen differently (i.e. less carefully). Thus e-books are incomplete substitutes for real books. She uses the example of editing her own writing on screen vs. marking up a printed manuscript to show how we miss things on screen:

Here's how it works, with me and with most writers I know (because I've asked). I've used computers for more than 25 years. I draft prose on-screen, work it over until I can't find much wrong with it, then double-space it and print it out. At that point I discover what's really there, which is ordinarily hazy, bloated, and boring. It looked pretty good on-screen, but it's crap. My first drafts on paper, after what amount to several drafts on computer, look like a battlefield.

Swafford then extends this theory about reading on screen to reading e-books for pleasure, talks about the multimedia formats for her new book, then yadda yadda yadda with a grumpy Garrison Keillor quotation salted in to taste, and boom: "My book on an iPad or whatever will be richer in worthwhile ways, but it will be less absorbing and probably less emotionally compelling."

That's quite a leap to go from "editing on a screen makes us sloppy" to "reading on a screen isn't emotionally compelling." I prefer to do final edits on paper too when a printer is handy, but this is hardly ironclad evidence. I know plenty of writers (I asked too) who edit entirely on screen. It's a matter of taste and practice I suspect.