Friday, August 26, 2011

On E-Books and the New Art

Last night, I had a wonderful conversation with my household sister, Annie, who is a fabulous author and lyricist, and who knows more about current events in the publishing industry than I do.

The conversation turned to e-books, since Niamh and the Hermit and Charming the Moon are both scheduled for conversion...and Letters of Love & Deception (previously titled Shards of Ivory) will soon debut in e-book format.

And yet...and yet...Borders closed.

I must confess that I do not own an e-reader and am a little reluctant to do so - even as I'm sure that once I have one, I'll love it as much as I first hated cell phones, and now love them; and hated texting, and now use it; and thought internet on a cell phone redundant, and now...! A picture, I trust, is forming.

What interests me, though, are the possibilities that this new medium possesses. "Form dictates content," is a good motto and too rarely followed. To put it another way:

Every time you change the form,
You change the art.

An e-reader may be used initially merely as another means of conveying words - but so does speech, and so do newspapers and blogs, and swears at your alarm clock in the morning (with the instruction manual you never read), and "Do you like me, check yes or no" notes passed in third grade, and the sides of cereal boxes. But newspapers took on their aesthetic format for practical purposes. Blogs likewise. Scripts for the stage look different from scripts for the screen, because the art conveyed is different.

The tragedy of print, in my humble opinion, is that through the ease of moveable type et al, we've forgotten the art of the novel. Illuminated manuscripts delved more fully into what a bound book could be, and why it should be cherished. Of the books currently being printed, only Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (especially the ambitious Unauthorized Autobiography, complete with reversible dust jacket!), and volumes like the various Ology books begin to make an aesthetic case for the printed word.

I'm an advocate of "outdated arts" - theatre, opera, and bound novels among them - but I am excited by the prospect of this new electronic art (which requires a better name than e-book or e-reader, which is too practical to get the proper creative juices flowing!). So, I wonder...

What, aesthetically, can an e-book do?

  • First, it seems strange to me that so few of them are still in greyscale. However, like orange-toned monitors, I presume this will change fairly quickly.
  • Once the conversion to color happens, authors and artists are free to include a whole variety of different "looks" for their texts - with pictures, perhaps with embedded video, app-like moving flash elements, as well as:
  • Various "extras" - rather like the DVD/Blu-Ray version of a book: interviews with the author, "commentary" from the author, direct links to dictionaries or thesauri or encyclopedias, links to forum and social networking sites to discuss the book in real time, playlists that can accompany the book, etc.
  • The author, too, will have the opportunity to include more interactive elements, or worldbuilding elements. I'm thinking especially as a fantastist here, since we tend to create our own encyclopedias for our worlds - the majority of which rarely sees the light of day, and yet which is some of the most fun that fantasy affords as its own aesthetic.
  • This element of connection to the internet will/can make time-released elements - similar to the serialized novel, or modern Easter eggs - also a possibility.
  • I'm sure there are many more possible uses, which I hope you will add in the comments! I'm equally sure that several of these ideas have been implemented in some form or another already. What concerns me is that authors begin to make use of and explore the whole range of possibilities available to them through the new medium of e-books, rather than merely using it as another (cheaper) form of getting their stories out there.

    For myself, my dear friend Annie said: "Well, then, what you should definitely add, Emily, is the music for Niamh. Because I can read it, and I can vaguely remember what it's supposed to sound like, but I'd love to have it play when I reread the book."

    Annie...here's one of those songs (acappella version by my sister and I, as part of a birthday present for my Mum).

    Enjoy! And leave a comment below. Where are we going next, in this brave new world?

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