On reading with our hands

Originally published in The Book of Days: An anthology of the 2015 Sydney Writers Festival (2015), from a talk given during the festival

I’m going to begin by talking about an orange I bought in Japan. The orange was on display in a shop that sold only fruit, protected by a fine mesh wrapper. At the counter an immaculately groomed sales assistant wrapped layers of translucent rice paper around the mesh, then carefully placed the well-swaddled orange in a little box. The box was an lovely piece of paper engineering, folding into itself so it closed without need for string or tape.

The thing about an orange is that it doesn’t need packaging. Oranges are a perfectly contained fruit and their natural wrapping looks and smells appealing. But that Japanese orange was an event. Opening the box and unwrapping the delicate, uniquely textured layers felt like Christmas. It built a sense of anticipation. I became part of a ceremony — the Japanese are masters of turning simple events like making a cup of tea or giving someone a piece of fruit into a sensual, tactile experience.

The effect of that ceremony was that I considered the orange in a new way. At the supermarket I often chuck a couple of oranges into a plastic bag that take ten frustrating minutes of rubbing between my fingers to open. This experience does not afford me time to reflect on the beauty of a single orange.

If the orange is a perfect fruit, the codex book is a perfect reading technology. By codex, I mean a block of pages, bound along one edge, protected by a cover. A book, as we know it. It’s light, portable, doesn’t require electricity or software updates, and it’s simple to use — you turn the pages to reveal the story.

A publisher once teased me, knowing I’m a book designer, by saying: we could cover a good book in brown paper and it would still sell. He meant a good book doesn’t need fancy packaging — it’s already a simply perfect thing. 

It’s true. Ebooks prove this.

When we purchase a book on an electronic device, what we’re actually buying is a piece of code: a digital file. That file will be loaded onto whatever device we choose to read it on: iPad, Kindle, desktop computer. It has no tangible form until it appears on our screen.

With e-publishing book design becomes largely irrelevant. There is still design involved in the process. Someone designed the template that your ebook flows into and selected the typefaces for you to choose from. Yet individual books are just floating code, waiting for a container. There is little to no unique design in an ebook. The teasing publisher was correct, a good book will sell even if packed in the digital equivalent of brown paper: a generic template.

What we’re talking about here is how design, or the look of a book, effects sales. Publishing is of course a commercial enterprise. The conversations I hear most about the future of book publishing focus on sales statistics: how print books are doing against ebooks, how the indies are doing against the Big Five, etc. Yet to understand the future for printed books we have to ask a different question: how do we get people to keep reading books? This is where design may play an important role.

There will be no future market for printed books if people lose interest in reading on the page. My mobile phone is a portal to more reading material than I could possibly read in a lifetime. In ten lifetimes. I have a list of television series I’m desperate to watch. Social media is generating gross amount of reading material every nanosecond.

To keep people interested in reading books, we need to foster a sense of ceremony around books and around reading. We need to make books and reading books special enough that they have a future.

Back to my ceremonial orange.

One of the things lost with e-books is a sense of specialness. With an eReader I’m not carrying around one orange, I’ve got the whole tray. If I’m online I have access to the whole orchid. 

I have a terrible habit of finding great sounding articles and rather than thinking ‘this looks good, I’ll read it’ I think ‘this looks good, I’ll email it to myself for some future less-busy moment’ even though I know there is no future less-busy moment because I already have hundreds of things saved to read. There will never be a less-busy moment again.

The reason for this is on electronic devices, I can never do one thing at a time. My devices constantly tell me how much there is to do, demand that I keep up and interact. I don’t have time for ceremony or ritual. Holding an eReader I can feel the weight of all the other books the thing contains, or could contain, waiting for me. Suddenly nothing seems special, or everything seems special.

The orange doesn’t need extra packaging — the world’s resources don’t need the extra packaging — but the packaging creates a sense of ritual, an experience that delights my senses and puts me in a certain kind of mood: I’m focused and receptive to appreciating the one thing in front of me.

A thoughtfully designed book does the same thing. It captures me, in a focused, embodied way. These are the things I love about the materiality of a printed book. I approach it from a distance — it doesn’t appear in front of me. I have time to size it up, get a sense of it in the world. I bond with it: run my hand across the embossed title of the cover, rub creamy paper stock between my index finger and thumb, feel its weight in my hands. I open it and shuffle my thumbs around until my hands settle comfortably with it. I love the singleness of purpose. There’s a clear beginning, middle and end. The book doesn’t network to distractions. A book exists to tell me a story. Just one story. Of course I can interpret that story many different ways, in different moods or at different points in my life I may return to that one story and find it entirely new, but the words — and images — on the page remain unchanged. There is comfort in this. Knowing that when I return to this object it will be exactly as it was.

I’m not arguing that all books should be printed — I think some books are better as inexpensive ephemeral files that can be read with abandon, then abandoned.

But in the conversation about the future of books and publishing, if we only look at sales figures, we risk placing too much attention on production and distribution profit margins and not enough on the experience of reading. A future for books is determined by a ceremonial celebration of reading, and ceremony requires objects we can cradle in our hands.