Baskerville versus the Kindle, Rounds 2–7, Hearing to Sustainability

In the previous post I pitted my Kindle against a book that is a minor masterpiece of eighteenth-century typography: John Baskerville’s 1760 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. I promise I went into this Battle of the Book-Related Christmas Presents with no preconceptions and simply wanted to explore where this admittedly extreme comparison would go. The judges (me) scored Round 1: Seeing (on visual appeal, including typography and medium) as a 9:2 victory for JB’s BCP. In this second part of the multimodal ‘read-off’, can Amazon’s new contender make a spirited fightback?

Round 2: Hearing

When I close the Kindle cover it feels stiff and bounces slightly back off the plastic screen; it makes a sound like BUh-d – short, simple, rather dull. When I do the same with the Baskerville, the hundreds of paper pages and the heavy boards compact together in a cushioned and symphonic f-f-ffththuunnmp. (I confess I enjoy the way the baroque curves of an open book implausibly and miraculously return to a neat brick, and sometimes do this to hardbacks a few times for fun.) Each page-turn sounds subtly different too, depending on how I feel when I turn. When I shut the book sometimes I can feel a slight draught on my face. A Kindle without a cover just makes clicky noises. At least the Kindle has the classic good taste that its page-turns don’t do the grisly always-the-same pseudo-rustle thing. Scores: Baskerville 8, Kindle 3

Round 3: Touch

On the Kindle I have to click mean little plastic sidebars to get a new screenful of text, followed (every fifth or sixth screen, I don’t know why) by a psychedelic white-black-white screen freakout that reminds me of when people got exterminated by the Daleks in the 1960s (for example at 0:48). But the Baskerville has miraculously improbable paper(!)-thin bone-dry once-living fibres of wood and linen demanding that I feel their stresses and their delicacy enough to take care of them.

My Kindle came with rather a nicely tactile black leather case with dark maroon suede inside, with what I think is an elastic bit (see the pic in the previous post) for securing a paper notebook. It sits oddly in my hand, because the weight is always to the left, which feels boring after a while. I have to poke at a small recessed sleep button on the Kindle with my fingernail to wake it up. The endless plastic clicking to key text (54 clicks for ‘shakespeare’) is disappointing. I am also disappointed it doesn’t have a touch screen. The suede lining is lovely but the Kindle itself is just beige matt plastic.

The Baskerville leather binding is probably Edwardian – I don’t know anything about it. But it evokes something complex and primitive. Somehow I feel parental: the binding has ‘give’, and is lanolated/clingy to touch, as if the precious and delicate book was designed to be held. Just in case the metaphor isn’t clear yet, the word for books printed before 1500 is incunabula, things that are cradled. Scores: Baskerville 9, Kindle 4

Round 4: Smell

The Kindle case wins this one: a faint atavistic association of butter, luggage shops and horse saddles on the outside; the inside is quite peaty, with some cardamom notes when I hold it to my nose. The Baskerville has a complex and slightly bitter dusty smell, evoking cold church halls – perhaps spores from its past, and oak galls in the ink. (The Kindle itself doesn’t smell of anything, but that’s not the rig under test.) Scores: Baskerville 4, Kindle 8

Round 5: Taste has been abandoned for reasons of health and safety at work, though one of the injunctions of the BCP (the Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent) is to ‘Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.’

A chunk of tasty page. Hang on, there's a widow there!

I have argued elsewhere that creative multimodality is one of the classic routes to communicative impact, a strategy towards ticking all our cognitive/learning styles boxes and matching up with the most of our individual and varied preferences for different kinds and ratios of sensory input. In other words we get more communication ‘hit’ if we use all our senses. William Morris also said ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’, so here are two more rounds that look at the important pragmatics of usability and sustainability.

Round 6: Usability

Portability: the Baskerville weighs in at a massive 1.54 kg (3 lb 6 oz). The Kindle (including cover) is a comparative lightweight at 290 gm (10 oz), and a slight 166 gm (not quite 6 oz) without its cover – about the same as a mass-market paperback. The Kindle is amazing for being able to store 1000+ titles (they say) for the same weight – excellent, radically new and useful. Battery life is quoted as one month, which is impressive, except, er, the Baskerville display never needs recharging. I am never going to cart the Baskerville around because I might damage it.

Bookmarking: Amazon’s proprietorial Cloud service (‘Whispersync’) keeps your page no matter how many devices you use. I thought I had confused it by starting to read a book twice. Perhaps it has a ‘dwell’ metric because when I clicked from page to page quickly it didn’t store my place, but after I slowed down it seemed to remember just fine. In my codexes, though, I sometimes have bookmarks that jump out at me years later to tell me what I was doing then. I’ve just found, in a copy of James Shapiro’s wonderful 1599 (about a year in Shakespeare’s life) an entry ticket to all the major buildings in the Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa.

Choice, speed of purchase – the Kindle is good for this. Apparently Amazon’s biggest-ever sales volume for e-books was on the Christmas Day just passed. Mind you, I’m not worried about speed usually. I always have more books stacked up than I can read – reading takes a long time, but we often buy on impulse. I get near-universal choice from buying paper books online anyway, and I only feel slightly guilty about not giving my business to high street bookshops because the quality and choice of online service has really made it easy to buy loads more books than I used to, and they are exactly the ones I want. Counterintuitively, the internet has increased my bookreading. I am guessing it has also – at least in these early days of its evolution – marginally increased average daily word intake for all of us. (Read about contemporary children’s reduced TV time here. OK, this is not the same as increasing attention span and comprehension, and it looks to me as if there is more and more video content on the internet and mobile media.)

Readability is the acid test. The rock-steady ink-on-paper of the Baskerville looks like an achievement at least somewhere on the same scale as stonecut lettering. E-ink is pretty good and non-flickery in a way that doesn’t dazzle my eyes like computer screens do. I rather enjoy the understated quietness of the Kindle display. If only the pages didn’t look as if nobody cared about them – which, unfortunately, they haven’t.

Durability – dropping both these objects on the floor is not good. If I put my Kindle in my pocket – Google ‘Kindle pocket’ to see how much Amazon marketing links the two things – I would probably at some point sit on it, or it would fall out. If the worst happens, though, Amazon holds your files on its servers – fantastic. The BCP in its suggested readings for Communion (the King James Version of Matthew 6:19) has some good words about this: ‘Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.’ Cloud-based storage is clearly an improvement on the catastrophes – including favourite books lent to friends, friends and books both now gone – visited on books and libraries over thousands of years.

Scores: Baskerville 5, Kindle 8

Round 7: Sustainability

What about lifetime energy costs, and environmental footprint? Turning dead trees into books and trucking them around uses up energy resources, but so does making petrochemical-based plastic devices with batteries made out of materials that are uneconomic or impractical to recycle.

What is the lifetime of a Kindle anyway? The featureset on the Kindle e-Reader is clearly already ‘out of date’ – at least by the standards of the technology industry. Colour, hyphenation software, higher-definition screen, touchscreen, more choice of fonts, more integration with the internet and the Cloud – WH Smith’s Kobo range is already offering some of these, ditto Kindle Fire. According to current Amazon US marketing, we are supposed to buy both the backlit ‘tablet’ Fire and the ‘classic’ e-ink Kindle e-Reader – not that the Fire device is available in the UK yet. My point is that the lifetime is short, although probably not as short as iPad 2.

What about the Baskerville book? Have a good look at this: the calendar for finding the date of Easter runs up to 2199, Yes, 2199. A book published in 1760 expected its usable life to be 439 years.

The more detailed table of calculations up to 1899 – without which this page doesn’t make full sense – takes up too much space to show here. But I had to show you this just in case you couldn’t believe me.

I don’t believe that electronic devices have got anything – in spite of widespread popular opinion – to do with reducing energy use at all. The sustainability of our lifestyle perhaps starts with what we have, not with what objects we want, and then what objects we want after that …

Scores: Baskerville 10, Kindle 6

Combined scores (6 rounds): Baskerville 45, Kindle 31 (out of a possible 60)

This is an impressive result for a very new medium – even I am surprised, and I run this show. The skilful bit for Amazon will be to decide how the Kindle evolves in the future – will it change towards the ‘immersive’ and experiential model, or is ‘the book+’ metaphor enough?

Perhaps it is tautologous to say that the Kindle suffers as book compared to some books. By my criteria of course a Kindle is not as ‘good’ as a book. Some might also say I have spent a lot of time looking at characteristics of ‘the book’ that have nothing to do with reading at all. They have a good point, which I hope to take up in my next post.

They might also say there were people like me muttering about ‘deterioration in quality’ after thumbing through Allen Lane’s first paperbacks, when studying Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible, and, some 1700 years ago, when reaching once more for their beloved scrolls after seeing some of those new-fangled codexes. I hope my critics can read that this isn’t what I am saying here. One thing that never changes is that there are always people afraid of change. Perhaps I can make my following point better by admitting it: I am afraid of change but I am not afraid of being afraid. We can all walk towards the things of which we are afraid. Perhaps, even, we can see them more clearly, more truthfully and more humanly than people who either sleepwalk or rush towards them headlong.

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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