Open The Door

Earlier this week, I had an amazing insight.  The physical act of opening the

Three Doorways into Changer

cover of a book is very much like that of opening a door.  I owe this insight to an interesting comment made by Chad Merkley in response to last week’s Wandering:“Zink Makes Me Think.”

I suggest you check out Chad’s comment(and while you’re at it, take in all the rest; they were especially thoughtful). In brief, Chad was talking about how he went and viewed some of Melissa Zink’s work on-line.  Her later work in particular made him consider the abstract nature of the written character.  He then speculated on how we might react differently to seeing the same characters on a computer screen or on the pages of a book and how the physical possession of a book makes us feel we own something that puts us in direction contact with the characters and their world.

Chad’s comment made me think about how I was reacting at that very moment to the book I’d just picked up from the library. Since this particular book is one I am reading mostly because I want to form my own opinions, not just parrot what “everybody” is saying, I’m viewing reading this book with some trepidation.  I keep peeking inside, reading a few words, then closing the book – rather in the same fashion that, as a child, I might have opened a door and checked out new and potentially dangerous terrain.

But, you know what they say…  You can’t judge a book by its cover.  It’s true.  You need to open the door and go inside the world beyond.  There’s a similarity to the two physical acts.  Humans are physical entities.  I’ve read that similar motions can trigger the similar responses.

Last year, I read how a popular juice brand changed its packaging to a more efficient and ergonomically designed model.  Within a few months, they changed back.  People didn’t “feel” they were getting the same experience, even though the contents were the same.  Sales dropped off in favor of juices in more traditional containers.  I’m sure you folks can supply other examples of when a change of shape or action changed the experience.

I bet that the “open the book” experience is why some of the most popular e-book covers mimic the shape of a book, complete with a cover to open.  The model Jim has is even embossed leather.  You don’t get much more “book-like” than leather binding.  All of this has given me serious insight to why I reacted so differently to trying e-book readers in stores and viewing material on Jim’s once he bought it.  That leather cover makes the e-reader look and feel more like a “real” book.

Think I’m pushing the idea that form can color the experience too hard?  Here’s an interesting anecdote in support.  A few years ago, a friend who lives in a foreign country begged me for the electronic file of a forthcoming novel.  He later wrote back that he was not as happy with the story as he had hoped he would be.  Later, when the book came out, he bought a physical copy.  He wrote me as soon as he finished reading it, making me promise that I would never again let him talk me into sending him a book as an electronic file.  The novel’s contents had been just fine.  He’d loved it (and went on the read the rest of the series).  It had been the experience of reading the text off a standard computer screen that had put him off.

I’ve heard similar stories from other authors, other readers.  A story is changed by the format in which you read it.  To this day, when Jim reads one of my books in manuscript, he requests a very specific format, one that lets him feel more as if he is reading a “real” book.

So maybe there’s nothing like “opening the door” and walking into a book.  Maybe that’s why despite the efficiency and increased sophistication of e-book readers, tablet computers, and all the rest, still, there will be nothing quite like holding that physical tome in your hand and feeling connected to the people and places within.

What do you think?  I love being stimulated into new ways of thinking about familiar things.

12 Responses to “Open The Door”

  1. Peter Says:

    Marshal McLuhan where are you now that we really need you?

    I’ve commented before that for me the words are the thing, and the delivery system is pretty much incidental*, but while reading this it struck me that I don’t feel that way at all about a related medium that’s currently struggling with the advent of digital: comic books. Even with a high-resolution image (sometimes higher-resolution that would be achieved on a printed page) and a monitor large enough to display two pages side-by-side in their “native” size the experience just isn’t the same, although I have a hard time putting my finger (putting my mouse cursor?) on exactly why it isn’t.

    * I do have some preferences, of course: I find a reflective surface (like a printed page or most dedicated e-readers) easier to read than a backlit one (like a computer screen); a printed book is easier to leaf through, but an electronic one is easier to search for something specific and annotate; my eyes aren’t as young as they used to be, so larger print sizes or fonts are more comfortable than smaller ones; I’m rarely without a book to hand, so I prefer delivery systems I can fit in a pocket and hold with one hand.

    In economics people talk about “disruptive technologies” but focus on their impact on business (Henry Ford putting the buggy whip manufacturers out of work) and don’t tend to look as much at political or social disruptions. Reading, books, and the way we think about these things haven’t really changed all that much since the days of Gutenberg (I’d argue that the last really disruptive technology in reading was the paperback, and that was a much smaller shift than from hand-copying to machine printing). We’ll have to see if the advent of digital has any impact as large as the Protestant Reformation, the concept of freedom of the press, or the invention of copyright.

    I wonder if we’re actually seeing a new phenomenon with the “real book” vs. e-book debate. Did people complain that these newfangled papyrus scrolls just weren’t the same as a real baked clay tablet, or that binding pages together changed the experience of reading a codex? I rather imagine they did, and I find that oddly comforting.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I’ll quibble…

      I’m not sure anyone complained about papyrus scrolls vs baked tablets because “fiction” as a medium didn’t really exist. Most of the complaints I’ve heard regarding e-readers is that they can take away from “getting lost” in a book.

      Jim mostly uses his e-reader for work. He doesn’t mind and even praises it, but when he was thinking about a new book to get from the library, he didn’t even consider downloading a file. He wanted a BOOK.

      And, yes, we download files all the time — I’m an audiobook junkie!

      • Peter Says:

        Fair quibble, and one that could also be applied to loose-leaf codices vs. bound books, making this the first real change in how we approach fiction. For me, I actually find it easier to “get lost” in an e-book; I think a fair bit of that’s down to eyesight – with an e-reader I can just set the font size to something comfortable, rather than having to perch a paperback on the bridge of my nose or hold it in the sweet spot for my bifocals, which tends to distract.

        As for audiobooks, I find myself utterly unable to get into them, at least for pleasure “reading”. They’re a wonderful classroom tool, and I have a ton, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t get lost in one. Chacun a son gout, as they say.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    I like books, and I’ve liked books most of my life. I suspect that I’m positively conditioned by the pleasure associated with the shape of books, the smell of the book, and the physical act of opening the cover and turning the pages, especially curled up in bed. This especially goes for paperbacks and trade hard covers. That probably happens to a lot of us.

    Compare that, with, say, an environmental impact statement, which is book-shaped, but a thudding pile of misery, bad writing, inadequate science, and (too often) obfuscation. Even though those things are formatted as spiral-bound books, I’m increasingly enjoying reading them on the computer, simply because the search function lets me find the sections I need to check, so I can minimize my exposure. I think this is conditioned too. I read these because I have to, more than because I want to. It’s not just the shape of the book, it’s the contents. That’s conditioning, too.

    The most interesting thing is watching my partner play with her new phone. I found a free copy of A Princess of Mars at Project Gutenberg and sent it to her. We’d just seen John Carter, and she’d never read anything by Edgar Rice Burroughs. She’s reading a minimal Kindle file, no cover art, and she’s thoroughly enjoying curling up with her little phone screen, riding across the moss-covered dead sea bottoms of old Barsoom, finger flick by finger flick. I suspect she’s going to enjoy reading novels on that phone for some time to come, simply because she’s having so much fun now.

    It’s a small sample, but I think the format matters simply because it’s what we associate with pleasure. I know it’s entirely possible to come to hate books, if all your reading is for work, and pleasure comes to be, say, jogging or hiking. Reading for pleasure is important, simply to keep it fun.

  3. Chad Merkley Says:

    I’m glad I was able to assist you to some insight, Jane. Now I’m going to disagree with you. “Opening a door” as a metaphor for opening a book is useful poetic image, but I think you’re overstating the physical similarity of the actions. For me, opening a book and beginning to read is a unique act, completely different from anything else that I do, and colored by the thousands of previous times I’ve done this over decades.

    I think that this goes back to my earliest childhood. My parents had (and still have) a large collection of books. They started reading to me before I was able to talk. My mother tells me that my first word was “book”. They read aloud to me and my siblings regularly until I was eleven or twelve, and encouraged me to read on my own, both fiction and non-fiction. We made regular trips to the library, and I often received books as gifts. When I was in college, I even worked at a used and rare bookstore for a while.

    The point of this is that I associate physical books with things like home, family, security, and so forth. It’s a lifetime of positive associations. Libraries and bookstores are safe, comfortable places for me (there are exceptions: modern chain bookstores are becoming less and less inviting, and the Seattle Public Library’s Central Branch building is probably the most repellant and least functional library I’ve ever seen). But the act of opening a file on a computer and reading on the screen does not have the same associations, and completely changes the experience.

    So, as Heteromeles says above, many of us are conditioned to prefer the physical books. (I also agree with his thoughts about how useful electronic copies of some types of documents are, especially those generated by bureaucracy.) Sometimes, it’s actually a little disconcerting for me to talk to someone who hasn’t had that kind of exposure and conditioning to books and reading. If love of literature is about opening doors, I would say that the important door is inside our minds, and it’s the job of parents and educators to help us open it.

  4. Susan Bannister Says:

    Hi Jane: I have no desire to buy a e-book reader–why should I when I have a computer–who needs more “luggage” and the additional cost of a gadget as far as I am concerned. I agree with you that I would like the feel of an actual book in my hands.

  5. Nicholas Wells Says:

    My mom is my first proof reader, and she always wants printed pages. Partly so she can write comments on it. The rest of the bulk because she prefers it.

    I’ve never thought about a metaphor about books. First one that pops to mind is more like a fortune teller’s globe. We get to watch the lives of those inside for a time, then… I don’t know. The magic runs out, or our guide decides we’ve seen enough. But the very best books (your included) make me feel like life goes on. It’s just time we let it go on without us.

    I’ve never tried e-readers enough to know if a cover would matter or not. So I abstain from that topic.

    As for changes not always being better. Professional team uniforms. I’ve seen some changes over the years and stared at them wondering “What the heck were you thinking?” Then again, some changes were long over due (Cream-cicle Buccaneers anyone?) Just a random tidbit for no particular reason.

  6. Morton W Kahl Says:

    I realy cant stomach reading a book on my computer. It actually makes me feel ill..

    Holding a real book in my own hand gives me pleasure. In general, I think that most? people are uncomfortable with changes in their environment. I was born in New York and moved to Bolivia when in my thirties. It took me quite a while to acclimate.

  7. Paul Says:

    I still prefer the paper books. I like the idea of going to the bookshelves and pulling down a book to re-read. I can actually remember what was going on in my life at the times I first read many of them, an association I doubt I could make with digitalis. In recent years, I can even tell when I bought a book (I leave the purchase receipt in it as a bookmark) and when I read it (adding a receipt from the date from a grocery or whatever), often many years later. That said, I have read some books electronically now, and imagine more readers will do so in the future as they become increasingly used to it at younger ages. One they they will lament the passing of the Kindle or whatever when the book is projected onto our retinas or into our brain cells.

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