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The books gestalt – yer what?

May 11, 2011


Velocette Vogue

Velocette Vogue - an experience best summed up in the printed word!

Books – they’re a pleasure aren’t they? Surely there is no greater indulgence than to read a treasured old volume and re-acquaint yourself with the words that once inspired, amused or informed you? But what value does a book have today, at a period of dramatic change and when, for example, it is estimated that Amazon’s Kindle revenue will be 4.5 billion dollars this year.

I still chuckle to myself at Peter Watson’s description of a blown cylinder head gasket on a Velocette Vogue in a 1983 edition of Classic Bike where he says it was “akin to being assaulted by a Teasmaid”. Wonderful words! I can still picture the page layout, the typography, the feel of the pages…  So much so that nearly thirty years on I bought one of these wonders for myself!

One of the pleasures of books is the gestalt itself: all the component parts which make up the whole experience: typography, design, look and feel, publisher brand, author brand, emotional involvement, historic context, self worth, personal reputation. How does digital match up to this?

With some e-book formats, much of the design and typography is simply pixellated and regurgitated onto the screen. Useful features permit the reader to enlarge the text for greater legibility and you can zoom into the images. But these very much are practical, not aesthetic features. All that you touch, you hold, is an illusion dressed in plastic.

With other formats, all you get is black and white reproduction and a limited selection of uninspiring typefaces. Once again, the presentation is about practicality and readability, less about look and feel and emotional involvement.

But printed books – or at least those printed well – offer a greater spirituality to them beyond the information being conveyed. Books show the outside world what maketh the man or woman. Books can be admired from without as well as within. Books have cultural value. Whether it’s the original copy of the Luttrell Psalter or Lady Chatterley’s Lover in paperback.

Digital platforms offer so much in the way of practicality but they take so much away in the sense of art. Publishers need not surrender totally to the digital way forward even if there is a movement towards practicality for purposes such as travel entertainment. Digital and print can live together – indeed, the challenge lies in effective marketing, pitch and brand. In this circumstance, books have a future, indeed.

Picture the poor e-reader user who loses his device. Only today, I saw a notice pinned on a post on a country footpath asking in a despairing way for the return of a camera lost down there. In the past, a camera may have carried a role of undeveloped film whereas now a digital camera is an extension of personality with hundreds of images stored within them. Indeed, the notice asked not for the camera but, more importantly, the memory card within it. People have come to believe that their sense of self is wrapped in a microchip.

No matter the convenience of modern technology, if all that we value is kept in tiny soulless devices then the future of humanity is indeed bleak. If all that we can look forward to is endless convenience and the gradual erosion of beauty then we have little to view that is positive save convenience. We enter the world of Blade Runner.

Yes to practicality but yes also to art, to form, to a sense of creation, to a sense of self expression and self worth. The dangers for publishers is to pursue the electronic dream and to wake up, some day in the future, when knowledge banks can be turned off by energy surges, water damage or the Chinese secret service.

The books gestalt is still valuable and it is ours to preserve if we so wish. Publishers, somewhere, hold the key.

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