At the World Fantasy Convention in 2015, I happened to receive a free copy of Cynthea Masson‘s The Alchemists’ Council (ECW Press, 2016). It introduced me to a transdimensional universe in which alchemy is treated as a metaphor for ecological sustainability. I’ve never read alchemy treated in this way before and the subject matter was treated in a complex, dialectical fashion that I found really appealing.
It was such an engaging read that I reviewed it for The Bull Calf Review. You may read the full review here.
The current issue of the Bull Calf Review has also published reviews done by several of my colleagues, Zain R. Mian and David Pitt. It has also published my Poetics teacher from my undergrad years at McGill, Joel Deshaye, as well a review by the 2016-2017 Parliamentary Poet Laureate, George Elliott Clarke. The Bull Calf is an “accessible, academic, and diverse tri-annual collection of reviews and retrospectives” and was founded at McGill in 2010.
The letters, the opening of Ray Bradbury’s seminal dystopian novel, glimmered flatly on my Kobo screen as I realized the irony of what I was doing. I realized swiftly that the battle of digital media versus print is a central point that burns down in Fahranheit 451. I will present to you my reflections on this question: Do Kobo readers create a real dystopia similar to the one in Fahrenheit 451?
Guy Montag, the protagonist, is a fireman. In Bradbury’s future in which all houses and buildings have been fireproofed, that means he sets fires, instead of putting them out. In effect, the firemen are the ideological police of their world, burning books in great bonfires of literature. Only fragments of the past survive–and Montag’s inner journey will lead him to discover more about that past world than his fellow firemen will dare allow.
Written during the turbulent McCarthy era in which supposed communists were hunted like witches and artists censored for their views, Fahrenheit 451 invokes myriad other historical instances of heresy and censorship. Whether it’s the Inquisition burning books placed on the Vatican’s infamous Index or the Nazis’ burning of tomes written by Jews, socialists, and other voices of opposition, burnings have been notorious throughout history. Though those who burn defend themselves by saying they are protecting “culture,” it is plain to others that burning books is antithetical to the fostering of culture.
I believe it was Neil Gaiman who said, “Libraries are the thin red line between civilization and barbarism.” An apt point when taken in the context of Ray Bradbury. (To read Gaiman’s tribute to Ray Bradbury, which he wrote upon his death in 2012, click here. For the Guardian article, click here.)
But burning is only one example of society’s dystopianism in Bradbury’s novel: there are also Seashells—basically a 1950s conception of what would eventually become earbuds for your iPod/MP3 player—and full-wall television screens. Bradbury never imagined in his novel the numerous computers currently in existence, and certainly not the distracting potential of social media websites, or the Internet in general, but he did get the sense that Western society was being bombarded by visual/auditory stimulation that would only get more intense and distracting. Whether the book burnings or media bombardment are more effective at creating Bradbury’s dystopia is a debatable point. I say the two go hand in hand.
Bradbury saw the transition from print media to the dominance of visual and digital media. In essence, Fahrenheit 451 is about that fundamental change in culture taken to an extreme. So I suppose it must be an ironic book to read on a Kobo, a digital platform. Am I a traitor to Bradbury’s ideals if I read his novel on a Kobo? I certainly hope not. But reading it on a Kobo did influence my experience of this novel in a way that underlines its theme, revealing some subtle effects in my reading experience that may, perhaps, be troubling.
For starters, I read the novel a whole lot faster, I suspect, than if I had had a physical copy on hand. Flipping the pages was easy; I just had to touch the right-hand side of the screen with my thumb. Furthermore, I could change the font and margins to enable faster reading and page turning. Reading it on the bus and metro also made it necessary to read faster in order to finish at a good spot to leave off whenever I would make a transfer. While reading the novel on a bus may appear to be a factor external to the digital experience, it was also the situation in which I feel most natural reading a Kobo.
Secondly, it was harder to browse through Fahrenheit 451 on my Kobo. While with physical book, you can open it randomly in the middle of the book and flip through the pages, you cannot do that on a digital book–at least not until an appropriate “page flipping” interface is designed and put into future models. Though the search function enables a certain amount of ease in finding passages, navigation forces you on a more linear path while flipping through the book beginning-to-end. This makes Kobo great for airport novels that you read through once and don’t bother with again, but less good for nonfiction and novels that you want to examine closely. As a literature student and book reviewer, I have a beef with this limitation.
Lastly, you cannot make comments on a Kobo easily, or write in the margins. Yes, you can make bookmarks. But to label the bookmarks effectively, you must leave the ebook and do a lot of back-and-forthing. If you have installed Calibre on your computer, you can make comments on your computer, but I was not able do this on my Kobo, even though the highlighting function says you can supposedly do this.
While these three points can potentially be fixed by developers, at present my Kobo makes a certain type of reading of Fahrenheit 451 easier rather than other types. And that type of reading says a lot about our society and the society in Fahrenheit 451.
Kobo is good for straight-through reading, for example, while on a bus: a way to quickly read a book that does not take up too much physical space. It is a portable library—a personal “bastion of civilization” that you can bring around with you. However, Kobo makes it difficult to read a book that you dearly love with the attention it deserves. Due to this limitation, “Kobo reading” is a kind of reading that is complicit to an extent with the hasty, media-overwhelmed, lower-attention span world that Bradbury warns us about.
Kobo rushes us along a highway (often when actually travelling on a highway), rather than allowing us to stroll, to stop, and to think.
In a way, this makes Kobo reading analogous the fast cars so prevalent in Bradbury’s utopia. Traditional readers are like pedestrians—people like Clarisse, the strange teenager Montag meets who walks on sidewalks asking “why?” and “how?” about things she sees. But Clarisse is later killed by a fast car, which bear no regard to pedestrians. Whereas Kobos have you rush through a book, traditional reading can be like a stroll through the suburbs—it involves a lot of stopping, smelling of roses, observation, and above all, opinion-forming.
Fahrenheit 451 is all about how media saturation, passive consumption, and a fast-paced society makes it harder to become a dissident of society and its ideology—not just about burning literature, but by ensuring new books are never written. Since we are all kept happy by comsumption and reassured that the world will take care of itself, we find less and less reason to challenge that order. But the “pursuit of happiness” cannot be the be-all-and-end-all of human existence: sometimes it is necessary to become disturbed, in order to make social change.
Outlawing literature and pedestrianism are two ways in which Bradbury’s society silences dissidence; it destroys opinions formed in the past and makes it difficult to develop opinions in the present. It is therefore not always necessary to burn in order to silence a heretic; an Inquisition founded on pleasure instead of torture is far more effective at domination.
And reading about such a dystopia on a Kobo forces you to become aware of the fact that how you read depends on where you read it, and in what format. Our consummerist society has made it harder to read books critically by developing ebook interfaces that do not promote critical and nonlinear reading styles. Physical books represent a freer way of reading. If all books end up going digital, our society will become closer than ever before to Bradbury’s dystopia.
Last Friday I attended a talk given by Bob Stein, who develop the first ebooks in 1992. You read that date right. It was 22 years ago, but the craze only began to catch fire with Kindle in 2007. During his presentation Mr. Stein said that he has always been 15 years ahead of tends in the digital book world. I thought I’d share my impressions of his talk because I believe that the future of the book is a fascinating topic, one of the great technological transitions of this age.
Since Gutenberg’s day (the printin’ 50s, I might coin it–the 1450s that is), the printed codex (or book) has come to be the world’s dominant form of information dissemination. However, since the rise of the silicon chip in the last 30 or so years, ebooks and the Internet have slowly supplanted the codex. They have not conquered print books yet, but given the popularity of ebooks and ereaders, in 5 to15 years the landscape will be different. I do not personally believe that printed books are going extinct–technologies transform more often than they vanish. That transformation may be enough, however, to change how we read forever.
Traditional publishers have a legacy to protect, said Mr. Stein at the Atwater Library in downtown Montreal during the meeting for AELAQ (the Association of English Language Publishers of Quebec). I was under the impression that many of the publishers in attendance were beginning to think about retirement. Those retiring soon have a reluctance to invest too heavily in digital publishing and a desire to defend the printed word. However, for someone like myself at 22 years of age, the world of ebooks, audiobooks, the Internet, and social media is where I will lay down my professional roots. Not that I don’t believe in print–quite the opposite–but I recognize the potentially exciting things that could emerge from digital publishing too. If you are reading this, you are witness to it; this is a blog, after all, and not magazine or private journal (see the irony in my blog title?).
I will have to come to terms with digital publishing if I desire to enter the industry as an editor or publisher–or even as an author. Authors are being asked to have build a platform through their social media presence. We are asked to not only be authors, but bloggers, directors (of YouTube movies), public speakers, and even voice actors (if we give our voice to an audiobook). Moving with this changing current is part of the purpose of The Vinciolo Journal, so I suppose you could say that you are glimpsing the future while reading this.
I myself have an ereader and the first book I’m reading on it is John Crowley’s Aegypt: The Solitudes, which I shall review next week. The ereader is the size of my hand and contains an entire library, including a thousand-page book of the complete short stories of H.P. Lovecraft–which would no doubt make my bag a lot heavier were I carrying it around all day. I find myself more reluctant to buy any physical book, no matter how badly I want it, because the shelf-space in my bedroom is packed and I still need space for school books next semester. Kobos, Kindles, and Nooks may be the only way to keep up a voracious reading habit.
There are other, more unexpected changes that the digital world could bring with it. Here is a list of some changes which Bob Stein said, or suggested, might come to the publishing industry:
-Printing will become more of an aesthetic choice. Ebooks will become mainstream, the option of utility.
-A new genre of literature may emerge once ereaders are the dominant form. It took 40 years for the novel to emerge as the main genre of print literature (from Gutenberg to Cervantes’ Don Quixote), so by 2054, perhaps we will see literature structured like a video game, where readers form their own narratives.
-A transition from solitary reading back to communal reading may be in store. Social media book clubs may become popular, the twenty-first century equivalent of the dominant mode of reading in medieval universities. Comment Press and Social Book allow you to write comments in the margins, renewing a habit of marginal notation that was popular in medieval manuscripts, incunabula, and early printed works.
–Since public domain books will remain free, it will become popular to buy glosses on a book. For example, if you were reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, you could get the book for free, but pay to have a historian’s notes on the text. If this becomes a thing, I suspect people will also pay to have a celebrity’s opinion on their favourite books, even if they have no academic understanding to bring.
-Digital books can be handed down through generations like family bibles. Your (grand)sons/daughters will read what you thought of A Tale of Two Cities if you write comments online. They will respond to notes you made twenty, even fifty years ago–and your comments will eventually outlive you for generations and generations.
-People will pay extra for supplementary material. Mr. Stein was one of the pioneers of including director’s commentary on DVDs. Would you be willing to pay extra to learn the author’s commentary on his/her own book? Something like that might be in store.
-Celebrity editors, like chefs, will be an effective way of increasing the branding of books. I find this last prediction fascinating, since I have yet to start my career as an editor. If I am interested in pursuing such a career, I would probably do well to pay attention to setting up my own brand right from the get-go.
I was so inspired to be thinking about the future of the book that when I came into Place Alexis Nihon, bound for the food court to grab my supper, I saw the bright lights and colours of a sports shoe department and thought to myself: what if we began selling books like Nike sells shoes? So much of consumerist culture is about branding and “the fetish of the commodity.” If we arranged shelf space in bookstores around either editorial or publishing company brands and set up rows of finely crafted hardcover codices of bestselling works, could a publishing company with money to invest arrange for a bookstore to sell titles in a way that emphasizes the premium quality of physical books, as opposed to digital books? Will such a niche market for codices arise after the ebook becomes dominant?
I know for a fact that I would visit such a store regularly. However, I cannot say the general public would take to it, at least not right away. For one, the price of these books would have to be relatively high, a reflection of the finer material qualities used in production. Why buy expensive $75 codices when paperback airplane thrillers come in at $5-10? But once everyone has an ereader and traditional books become rare, could this brand shop idea become a viable business plan? An opportunity to decorate one’s living room with attractive book spines?
Would you enter such a bookstore of the future, or would you not? While you search for an answer, I will give some thought to branding myself as an editor and await the coming of the day when I can sell comments on my favourite book for money. There may be money in being an author yet!