I am not a computer person. I have nothing against them; we just don’t get along. It follows that I am not a natural or enthusiastic rider of the ebook bandwagon – it seems another technology I’ll fail to learn. What I am is a lifelong and committed reader. Fostered by the galloping loneliness of a post-divorce childhood and the gruelling grind of adolescence, I turned to reading early on as a means of escape.
I have been addicted ever since.
Fiction gets into you like that. The only child of an academic and an artist, this propensity to bookishness was perhaps inevitable, and I would want no other inheritance. Like my childhood heroines, Jo March and Anne Shirley, I write fiction too, now that I am grown up. I lecture on books in universities, and I review them. I still treat habitual, daily reading as a lifeline to be stringently gripped, should the real world get too grim. I struggle to write this without sounding hysterical – but to me, reading really is life, the universe. Everything.
When I sat down to read my first electronic book, I was largely ambivalent about the technological side of things. I was driven to go digital because, so far, popular debate has not really emphasised just what ebooks mean for the act of reading. Few are asking what I believe are, for readers, the fundamental questions. Is a book still a book if it is a computer file? If we read a novel in digital form, is it still the same novel that it ever was on paper? What are the literary implications of the ereader revolution, not for the fiscal security of certain industry stakeholders – publishers, booksellers and libraries, each of which have garnered much necessary focus – but for readers? And I don’t mean in terms of whether the Kindle is better than the iPad, but in regards to how we receive and understand narrative. Despite my ingrained technological reticence, I felt compelled to explore these questions. After all, technology had invaded my bookish turf; it seemed only right that I met it head on.
Serendipitously, just as I was becoming interested in digital books earlier this year, Melbourne independent bookshop Readings launched their ebookstore through ereader platform Booki.sh. I contacted Peter Haasz – the business developer of the Booki.sh team – to discuss my looming ebook experience.
We meet at Journal Cafe in Melbourne’s CBD, adjacent to the City Library, which seems a portentous location for such a rendezvous. What sets Booki.sh apart from other ebook platforms, such as Kindle or Kobo (affiliated with Amazon and Borders respectively), Haasz soon tells me, is that the software runs independently of any particular reading device. Booki.sh books can therefore be read on any machines with a web browser. So far so good, I think, since I have only a laptop at my disposal. The books can also be cached (downloaded) for offline reading.
Haasz tells me that Booki.sh ‘always start with the premise that everything we do should look at what makes reading joyful. We have some insights about what makes reading special that the big guys have missed.’ For example, Booki.sh is not interested in the kind of mass customisation typical to Amazon, who stock more than two million ebooks. ‘I can guarantee that no one at Amazon has read and can vouch for the quality of that many books,’ Haasz says, a likelihood that speaks back to questions raised about literary gate-keeping in a post-digital world, particularly one where self-publication and distribution is being made increasingly easy and affordable.
As such, Booki.sh is primarily focused on a growing range of independent and small-press publishers in Australia. This means that their titles do not generally include Amazon best sellers, like Suzanne Collins’s international blockbuster apocalyptic YA trilogy, The Hunger Games, but run instead to more eclectic and literary works. This May, Amazon reported their ebook sales exceeding those of paper books.
I wonder what this means for Readings and the other independent bookstores across the country who sell Booki.sh ebooks, if and when the same trends apply here in Australia. More importantly to me, I wonder what it means for readers. Where will those who love books go to browse, not just onscreen, but in the physical presence of their revered objects, in the real-life company of those who share such reverence? Can the sacred space of bookstores and libraries ever, without great loss to readers, be replaced?
Overall, though, I am disarmed by Haasz’s conviction, his ambitions for Booki.sh and Australian readers. We open my laptop, and he shows me how to buy and read my chosen novel. The book is Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, published by Sleepers Publishing. I have read it before; it’s a masterful and imaginative work, one that I particularly love for its clean prose and rollicking post-apocalyptic vision. Because it is familiar I will, I hope, be attuned to any experiential differences derived from what, despite Haasz’s best efforts, I still suspect will remain technology’s brutal intrusion on the act of reading.
Before departing, I ask Haasz how Booki.sh competes with the many qualities of the physical books: weight, heft, ‘real’ pages; the intrinsic joy of holding something beautiful and solid in one’s own hands. The smell. His answer surprises me. ‘There are some aspects of physical books that we can’t do, and are not trying to do,’ he says.
‘What we are trying to do is say, given what’s happening, how can we make this as attractive as possible for people who love books?’
I fear that reading on the computer is an uninspiring way to experience narrative, but I begin Things We Didn’t See Coming on the laptop because I don’t own another ereading device. I read at the kitchen table, over meals – which is my usual routine and the easiest way to manage the cumbersome machine. Later, I will lie in bed, the laptop propped open on my chest. Uncomfortable, I find that an intrinsic narrative quality is lost for me when reading onscreen. It is a quality lost in the body as well as in the brain.
When I read fiction, I seek to forget that I am me. I want to go inside the text, become amorphous; I seek for the narrative to become so absorbingly solid that my self dissolves. Yet the mediation of the computer means that not only is the usual physicality of the book absent but the narrative too remains intangible. Having to negotiate the computer to get to the story, I am never unaware that I am reading, and I remain solidly myself, locked out.
Despite this, something surprising happens while I am reading the ebook. As soon as I ‘open’ the digital book and begin to read, I experience a creeping and confronting sense of disquiet. I am, of course, familiar with the stories – but the interaction between what I am reading and how I am reading it is eerie and unmistakable. Opening with the Y2K scare at the turn of the millennium and post-apocalyptic in scope, Things We Didn’t See Coming offers nine largely self-contained chapters – nine futures – for Amsterdam’s narrator to endure and survive.
From the rain-drenched, empty and inhospitable terrain of ‘Dry Land’ to the utopian commune represented in ‘Predisposed’, the future is neither wholly damned nor saved, but is complex and challenging; a site at which human ingenuity, greed and suffering are precariously pitted against sometimes indifferent, dangerous, ecological, social and political circumstances:
This whole thing is symbolic, symbolic of a system that’s hopelessly shortsighted, a system that twenty, thirty years ago couldn’t imagine a time when we might be starting a new century. That’s how limited an animal we are. Do you get it? … We are arrogant, stupid – we lack humility in the face of centuries and centuries of time before us.
I find the resonance of this passage extraordinary when read in digital form. In fact, Amsterdam’s entire narrative is made wholly palpable and profound when conveyed through the computer. Somehow the relationship and conflation between the technology I am using, and Amsterdam’s disturbing vision, creates a reading experience unlike any I have had before. I have entered into Amsterdam’s narrative in a way made possible only by the fact of the book’s technological form. Though I have not forgotten myself and been absorbed by the text as I am used to, there is a certain thrilling synergy, a symbiosis between form and content, which makes for an extraordinary experience.
While reading, I felt that I was actually participating in the futuristic worlds Amsterdam portrays, participating in ways far beyond anything ordinarily facilitated by printed text. Further, the literary sweet spot created by the marriage of post-apocalyptic narrative with digital book negated, to a degree, the inherent discomfort derived from reading onscreen. Some new meaning, some new depth and poignancy were made, unexpected and welcome, when I read the novel digitally. Things We Didn’t See Coming no longer seemed like science fiction, but science fact.
I suspect the relationship between post-apocalyptic/sci-fi narratives and ebooks extends to other genres in digital form. I see now that the themes and narratives of each novel are likely to be mediated by the digital form to their own degree, and in their own individual, fascinating ways. While reading Amsterdam’s novel, I was simultaneously reading a hard copy of Candia McWilliams’s memoir What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness (2010). Just as Amsterdam’s novel was a natural, electrifying fit for the vehicle of ereader, McWilliams’s memoir was a natural companion to the experience of reading a digital book for the first time. McWilliams, a prize-winning Scottish novelist and writer of short fiction, began losing her sight in 2006 while judging the Man Booker Prize of that year. One of the greatest losses borne by the writer in the wake of her failing eyesight was her ability to read. Unable to live without reading, she turned to audiobooks.
McWilliams writes so eloquently about what that ‘reading’ experience was like. Her careful, acute observations convey the inherent differences between reading a book for one’s self, and listening to that same book being read aloud by another, in terms of understanding narrative. There is little doubt in her mind that the two are wholly different experiences; that each brings its own weight and meaning to text. ‘I am reading, that is listening to, Paradise Lost,’ McWilliams writes. ‘It is read by Anton Lesser, whose intelligent doubt-filled voice somehow emphasises the clouded giants and rivers of pearl he speaks of through the mind of Milton.’
Similarly, I am certain that reading fiction in digital form alters the meaning and experience of narrative in intrinsic yet intriguing ways. Amsterdam’s myriad worldly decays were certainly emphasised, extended and furnished with terrifying clarity when read onscreen. Peter Haasz told me that we should look to history for help – to the paperback revolution, to the digitisation of the music industry – as we grapple with a future that includes more and more ebooks. Had I done as he suggested, it’s possible I might have seen all this coming.