The Unsuspecting E-Book Reader (Part 1)

When you read a printed document, you take part in a private two-way conversation with the writer, a writer who has written a novel, a story, a poem, even a company’s white paper or bylined article, making his or her meaning as clear as possible, yet leaving it open to your interpretation. That’s the way it should be: just you and the writer, with no one intruding or listening in.

Such conversations, however, are no longer private if you’re reading a book on your electronic reader, whether it’s one from Google, Barnes & Noble, Amazon or Apple. Now, somebody is secretly noting not only the kinds of books you’re reading but how long it takes you to get through each one, whether you stop reading before the end, and what you highlight or bookmark on the pages (oops, I mean the screen) as you go through it.

Although I find the hard-and-inflexible and appliance-like feel of these electronic gadgets distasteful, I like using e-readers for the most part. We have both the Kindle and the iPad. On each, I quickly can get the feeling of reading a book, not hesitantly questioning whether the device is missing something important to the reading experience.

I don’t care for the smell of most printed books, so I don’t miss that about them when I choose an electronic book over a printed one. They smell stuffy to me. And I’ve never been a fan of old, dusty, used books, even though I’ve always thought it would be nice to have a collection of rare editions—new, rare editions, I would prefer. And I don’t like the idea of not knowing who owned a book before me and where it’s been lying around for the past number of years.

When reading printed publications, I like the feel of paperbacks more than hardcover editions. I like their flexibility and usually their size. But mostly, I like the way they feel inviting, as if they’re asking me to come in for a conversation and a cup of tea.

Last week, though, I bought a hardcover book (it’s wasn’t available in a paperback or electronic version) that had a great feeling. The paper was a pleasing off-white, with a slight tinge of green, not stark and jarring; the pages were comfortable, thick with just a slight texture; the spine lay completely open without a push, leaving the pages flat, not curved, for easy reading on my desk.

But the e-book works well for me, too. At least, it does until I think about some third party participating in my reading; some third party trying to figure out if I fit in to the demographic the publisher wants for the book; some third party more concerned about whether it can learn something from me beyond whether I’m enjoying the book, something that might help him help sell more books tomorrow.

(Read Part 2 of “The Unsuspecting E-Book Reader” at http://ow.ly/cuP4P.)

Quote from Bill Nighy

I have a theory with art of any kind that when it’s true and great, you receive it as if you are remembering it. There is a familiarity about it. And with his dialogue, it’s as if, if he’d given me another couple of minutes I would have gotten around to saying that.

Actor Bill Nighy discussing acting, art, and the playwright David Hare on the “Charlie Rose” show, May 16, 2012.

The Purity of Simplicity

When I was just now reading William H. Gass’s essay “Simplicities,” I thought of Steve Jobs, not that Gass was writing about him in this essay or would have written about him since the piece was first published in book form in 1996 when Jobs was still in the wilderness and not on many philosophers’ lists of businessmen to discuss.

But I thought of Jobs especially when Gass wrote about the simplicity of Shaker craftsmanship, which reflected in its own way the Japanese style of design that had influenced Jobs, the craftsmanship Gass described as “spare, straight, upright, plain, simple, direct, pure, square, tight, useful, orderly, unaffected, neat, clean careful, correct.”

He said:

Yet the Shakers used only the finest maple, the truest oak and clearest of pine, the best slate. Grooves and pegs which were internal to a piece, and therefore never seen, were finished as finely as if they would live their whole lives out-of-doors.

This statement closely resembles the way Jobs felt, as recalled in Walter Isaason’s biography of the Apple co-founder and CEO. Once as a boy when painting a fence with his father, Jobs was told that because he would know the quality of the work he had done, Jobs needed to paint the back of the fence located in the corner of the yard, even though no one would ever see it. He always remembered, and lived by, that lesson. When working on the first Mac computer, Jobs insisted that “the printed circuit board that would hold the chips and other components deep inside the Macintosh” be as beautiful as possible, Isaason wrote. Years later, Jobs said about this belief:

When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.

Such quality, whether on the back of a fence, inside a computer, or “only” within a sentence or paragraph you’re writing for a blog post, bylined article or news release, is often invisible to those who merely glance at the work. To them its quality may make little difference. But it’s not invisible, insignificant, lost or forgotten to you if you care about what you do and how you do it and if you strive for this sense of purity that Gass called “the property of simplicity.”