Monday, January 30, 2012

Paper vs. Pixels


Lately I’ve been wondering, wearing my historian’s hat, what changes in technology have meant to people for the past few thousand years. No, I’m not off my head, though sometimes I do wonder if indeed I am whilst in my day time, cubicle-bound state. Lately I have jumped headlong into the world of e-books by attempting to convert the original Word.doc manuscript of CHILDREN OF APOLLO to e-book format for release on Amazon, the iBookstore, Sony store etc. etc. I shall plug and promote shamelessly in later posts.

To my great surprise, making my work available in e-format is not just a matter of going to the appropriate site and uploading my lovingly crafted, nicely honed manuscript as is. I did try that and the whole thing blew up in my face, one big formatting disaster with font sizes changed on an ad hoc basis, several blank pages where there should be none and several other headaches for which no over-the-counter drugs provide any form of relief. In the online communities, there are discussion groups, or rather therapy groups, on just this topic. I found myself in the chat room with other green hopefuls being given various bits of helpful advice from veterans of the formatting war. The campaign from paper to pixels can be a frustrating affair.

Ancient Greek text in stone
So what have changes in method or technology done to the artistically inclined of history? I laugh at the thought of someone in the Academy of Athens, circa 400 B.C. complaining to his teacher that the Iliad and the Odyssey were just too long to memorize. “Well then, my dear block head,” said the teacher, “ you had better set it down in stone.” But then, wouldn’t the finely chiselled stones be too heavy to carry about, or read from an odd angle? Maybe another student received a visit from a merchant uncle of Alexandria who brought some rolls of papyrus and the student thought, “Now these are much more portable! I shall set down the works of the poet here.” Little did he know that if papyrus got too wet it would not last, depending on the quality of the papyrus of course.

Papyrus text
Flash forward to ancient Rome. Ah, yes. The quality of papyrus scrolls improved a great deal with the annexation of Egypt and the subsequent drop in prices of Egyptian products. Wax tablets became popular, they were portable, waterproof and reusable. But how many would you need to carry about the works of Homer? Perhaps they had abridged versions at that point, ‘SPQR Notes’ or something of the sort. Oral tradition, mind you, is still going strong in the Celtic lands of western and north-western Europe, bards still recite lengthy works from memory. But we must set things down for posterity!

Enter the Middle Ages and vellum as well as improved parchment. Hunchbacked monks are copying everything down and basically saving western civilization from being forgotten. They are also adding to the reading enjoyment of those who could afford books by illuminating them in brilliant colours and gold leaf. What a joy it must have been to caress the pages of an illuminated edition of Geoffrey of Monmouth, or the Roman de Brut.

Vellum book
Books, the format of varying qualities and thicknesses of paper bound together within the protective folds of a cover, have lasted for hundreds of years.

Now, it seems that we are moving away from that.

Everywhere you go, you see more people reading, gaming or texting etc. on some kind of mobile device or iPad. There are still quite a few who brave crowded subway cars with thick tomes of textured paper. But there are more and more e-readers out there now, more and more people ‘flipping’ through their e-ink pages. Some even say, ‘Books are dead’.

But are they? Are paper books well and truly, dying?

I don’t think so. A few weeks ago, before learning about formatting text for e-books, I would have through that yes, at the back of my mind, paper books are fading into the mists of time. I don’t think so now. Here’s why…

Yes. Books.
A paper book and an e-book both provide very different reading experiences. With a paperback, for instance, you can change up the fonts a bit, choose your quality of paper and have a flashy back cover. One thing that I have found out is that there is not a lot of elbow room to mix up the fonts in e-book format. Even though you should not have more than three different fonts at most, it is still nice to be able to have your title or chapter headings in a different font. For the paperback version of CHILDREN OF APOLLO, I chose a font that looked a bit more ancient than what I have for the text. It adds a nice touch along with bits of Latin. When I converted the files the font wasn't recognized and it all became uniform.

A friend of mine who just received an e-reader and loves it noted that it is not the same as reading a paper book because you don’t have the sense of being able to flip back to previous scenes or a map as easily in order to refresh your memory.. I know I refer back to maps and glossaries etc. if they are there. E-readers do allow you to bookmark pages but then you have the fiddly thing of going through a menu to get there. It is a strange thing but with an e-book, there is not such thing as page numbers. Because readers can change the font size to whatever they wish, the amount of text on a page is variable. If there was a book club the members of which all had e-readers, how would they refer to particular events and go back to those events in discussion? How could they possibly be (sorry about this) on the same page? Might be an issue for some.

E-readers and Tablets
For myself, I would only use an e-reader for works of fiction or to review my own manuscript in PDF. When it comes to reference books, I want full colour pages showing me the ruins of a lost civilization in detail, not greyscale pixels on a small screen.

I could go on about little things for and against both formats but, either way, I don't think it really matters which format one prefers. Both are readily available now, and both have their uses. I like both and though e-books seem to be making headway, it seems that paper books are still in the game.

I suppose that papyrus would have lasted if preserved in the right conditions and many texts have come down to us as such. However, the chiselled stone monuments also still stand today. Both contribute equally to the preservation of history and its stories.

Read on folks!

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