Monday, May 2, 2011

Hay-on-Wye, Eric Gill, eBooks and i-Proust

Staying near Capel-y-Fin in the black Mountains this Easter my friend Keith (of antcreative, whose lovely photos follow) introduced me to the curiously fascinating world of typeface design. Ten of us were staying very near the home of the weird and eccentric Eric Gill; typeface designer, sculptor and priapic who set up home and a weird sort of spiritual cult in the Capel-y-Finn monastery in the 1920’s.

Capel-y-Finn Monastery, home of Eric Gill between 1924 and 1928

He led a fairly despicable lifestyle, the most disturbing part of which involved him having sex with any female that came into his orbit including family members, human or canine. He also carved headstones in the graveyard, sculpted and created classic and enduring typefaces. However, I’ll never be able to look at Perpetua or Gill Sans (which he designed) in the same way again having read a bit about him.

We also paid a visit to the nearby spiritual home of the book, Hay-on-Wye with its literary festival and with its 30 or so bookshops.

Hay-on-Wye made me feel slightly guilty for having recently downloaded ‘Remembrance Of Things Past’ to my iPhone and iPad (I’d finished Angry Birds and needed something calming) … this was the first time I have tried reading a book on a screen and to my surprise, the experience has been quite pleasurable. 

To continue with the typeface geek-out,  the default font on the iPhone version of ‘Swann’s Way’ is Palatino (fyi - originally designed by Hermann Zapf, released in 1948 and named after the 16th century Italian master of calligraphy, Giambattista Palatino) which definitely contributes to the pleasing and traditional appearance of the pages on the screen and certainly helps the brain accept that you are reading what, for 50 years, I have known as a book. The way the pages turn and the visual evocation of an actual book on the screen all help to make the transition from paper to pixels relatively seamless.

I haven’t yet tried any serious reading on a Kindle but I can’t see it being long before the urge to own one overcomes me. I like to read on holiday and the i-screens are no good in the sun. 

The C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation (1922) of ‘Remembrance Of Things Past’ is out of copyright so it was free to download which is great for me but it sucks as a business model for publishers and booksellers-  now they have to accept the classics being given away for free as an inducement to get us to pay for their new books.

Although the book trade is clearly heading the same way as the CD and DVD businesses, I have tended to worry less about the total disappearance of books because there is something so fundamental to the human experience about the book - the written word is what brought humans out of the dark ages and the printed word is what allowed civilisation to reach across the globe.

For many people, myself included, the physical book is a souvenir of the time or times that they read it. I don’t really collect anything except books. In the 70’s when I discovered reading I used to write my name and the date inside every cover - it amuses me now to see how I leaped around from Tolstoy to Ed McBain to Lawrence to HE Bates.

Although I suffer with the occasional pang of vinyl nostalgia, I don’t think its the same nostalgia I get with books. Listening to ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ takes me right back to 1973 whether it's the vinyl, CD or digital version. Of course the album cover is a classic and that is an art form that is lost to us, but the digital album cover is going to do the same thing for the digital generation.

A live concert is still a very pure, perhaps the most, pure way of experiencing music. The Hay-on-Wye festival is the sort of Glastonbury of books but the book is still the purest way of consuming literature and all that it evokes.

Richard Booth's Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye

eBooks will continue to grow in popularity and general bookshops will give way to amazon and other online retailers - maybe niche and specialist shops will survive where proprietors have specialist knowledge of their subject and are familiar with the books in their stores, like the Murder and Mayhem shop in Hay-on-Wye. Running a bookshop in Hay must be hard and I hope they survive, they lend a unique and welcoming atmosphere to the town.

Now that I have experienced the pleasure of reading on an i-device though I am starting to worry more about the long-term future of the book itself, not just the bookshop.

A series of somewhat cryptic announcements by amazon make it clear that they are selling a lot of eBooks now, possibly more than hardbacks and even paperbacks for some titles in some circumstances (that’s the cryptic bit).

There are some interesting new publishing trends emerging as a result of digital book distribution and the quick book, the short-run publication, extended essays and and other literary forms will all become more popular as a result of the rise of the eBook trade.

I’m of a generation that will still want a copy of Proust on my bookshelf to touch and to smell and to dip into and to remember the first time I read it, living in Montmatre in 1980, and maybe even the second time I read it; on the bog in Bristol in the spring/summer of 2011.

Update 3rd May:

I found this on Facebook - Seth Goodin talking about the publishing strategy for his book 'Unleashing The Idea Virus' - it's a clip from 'Press Pause Play'