‘So far, I have been able to recognise every book that was composed on a computer,’ Ivan Illich told his friend David Cayley. ‘It’s like reorganising a river by taking a piece of it from here and putting it somewhere else.’
The remark jumped out at me because I had heard precisely the same claim from Alan Garner. ‘The elbow is the best editor’ was his explanation.
There is a kind of naive sophistication to the commonplace idea that writing is writing, a text is a text, on the screen or on the page. Against this, I take the words of these old men as a clue to a subtle transformation that took place in recent decades, prefiguring the more noticeable arrival of the ‘electronic book’.
Illich found the word-processed text, with its ‘paragraphs that didn’t come out of an inner flow’, almost unreadable. ‘So I made a vow,’ he went on, ‘not to type into a computer anything, any sequence of sentences, which I had not first written out with a much newer invention, the felt-tipped pen.’
I thought of this on the afternoon in September when nine of us gathered in the upstairs room of a cafe in Liverpool for the first meeting of the Dark Mountain steering group. Of the items on the agenda, the one that raised passions was the question of whether the books we publish should also be available as eBooks. It was not simply that we disagreed with each other: we disagreed with ourselves! (I, for one, found myself arguing one way and then another.)
To begin with, Dark Mountain would hardly exist without the networked technologies through which many of us found one another. From Paul and I crossing paths on the comment threads of each other’s blogs to the crowdfunding campaigns that have made our books possible, this project is a phenomenon of the networked age. While it mattered to us that the original manifesto should be presented as a physical publication, its text has always been available freely through this website.
Yet there was a particular discomfort at the idea of substituting a file on a digital device for the weight of a book in the hand, its spine upright on the shelf. A website is a new kind of thing, someone said, but an eBook is part of the attempt to virtualise the physical world. And while the irony did not go unnoticed that our books are put together – and for the most part, I suspect, written – on computers, then transposed from the virtual to the physical, still we felt the tug of this distinction. Perhaps it has to do with the edge of animism that lingers in our relationship to these companions that speak silently to our eyes. ‘People hold books in a special way – like they hold nothing else,’ notices John Berger. ‘They hold them not like inanimate things but like ones that have gone to sleep.’
Those of us who owned eBook readers did not find them replacing the physical books in our lives. (I have a Kindle whose main use is to save me printing thousands of pages a year of submissions to Dark Mountain and the drafts of friends’ books.) Nor were we moved by the supposed logic of technological inevitability, according to which those raised with digital books will find our attachment to print impossible to understand.
It seemed to us that the eBook was not a technological improvement, but a poorer substitute: like a photocopy of a book, it may be convenient under certain circumstances, but that hardly renders the printed form obsolete.
It also seemed reasonable to suggest, as someone did that afternoon, that books will outlast eBooks. The life expectancy of digital media compares poorly to that of print, for one thing, while Amazon does not consider you to own your Kindle library in the sense that would allow you to leave it to your offspring. There is also the consideration that William Golding anticipated more than thirty years ago in ‘A Moving Target’:
Our world is voracious and still becoming more so. Sooner or later, unless we exercise a care and forethought which is seldom evident in the mass of human beings, we shall be left with little more than village or small town economy. It is worth noting, therefore, that the making of books can be a cottage industry. If the need is there, anyone could learn that careful swirl of the tray and flick of the wrist that distributes the pulp evenly over the mesh and gives us handmade paper…
I say all this because I sometimes hear people say that the age of the book is past; and I suppose these statements to come from people who have a couple of thousand television sets on their shelves. But it will be a very advanced village industry that can manufacture a television set. Tapes, cassettes, records, radios, television sets are with us, certainly; but he would be a wise man who could predict how long we shall be able to afford them.
Yet having voiced our various hesitations and misgivings, we were also aware that there are those for whom the price of the print editions of our books – particularly when combined with the cost of international shipping – can be prohibitive, or who for other reasons would benefit from the availability of a digital edition. So the eventual conclusion of our discussions was that we should share our mixed feelings and invite the views of others, while offering, for the time being, a digital edition of last resort.
For the next few months, then, we are making available for a donation a PDF of each of our three books. This is a deliberately makeshift solution: it contains the full contents of the print edition and will display well on computer screens or as a print-out, but has not been formatted to work well on eBook readers. It may be that our next step is to invest in converting these files into ‘proper’ eBooks, or that we return to solely print publication. For now, the PDFs can be found through links on the Dark Mountain shop, and we are open to your thoughts.
Meanwhile, I have been writing this blog post with a rollerball pen that was made in Japan. Although, after reading this blog post from The View From Hell, I may have to ask for a fountain pen for my birthday.