The Future of the Book

Some end-of-2010 thoughts by Jon Stone on the rise and stumble of the e-book

Shuffling around Foyles on Charing Cross Road in the days leading up to Christmas, it’s hard to reconcile everything you’ve been hearing about the popularity of the Kindle with the dozens of people crowding out every aisle and corner of the shop in search of appropriate Christmas presents. What will these people do when the book goes electronic? You can’t buy someone a megabyte’s worth of downloaded data for a gift. You can’t steal their e-reader, change their credit card details to yours, purchase the desired bonkbuster/Booker winner/how-to manual, change the credit card details back, tie a ribbon around it and leave it under the tree. You could give them some kind of gift card, I suppose, but you might as well give them money.

The Kindle’s designers seem to have thought of books as mere vessels for vast volumes of text. The user is trying to get the information into their brain through their eyes and isn’t really bothered about the method of conveyance.

As it is, books remain the ideal present for anyone who will have them. They’re the easiest things in the world to wrap. They come in a wide range of forms &ndash fitting a wide range of budgets &ndash from £7 paperback thrillers to £30 coffee table monsters. And most importantly of all, there’re millions of them. Compare book-browsing to the purchase of a DVD, where the recipient’s narrow taste in genre restricts you to a few dozen titles, any of which they may already own or have seen recently. Pity the poor parents in Game or HMV trying to remember which Sims 4 expansion pack is needed and for which console. In any decent-sized bookshop, there will be something they like. There must be. If they read at all, that is. And if they don’t, they’re out of the equation anyway, as far as the book versus e-book debate goes.
But then you get home and take a good, long look at your flat. If you’re anything like me, your last week-long overhaul of your living space resulted in you finding just enough space to fit most of the things you own, though only after bidding goodbye to various treasured possessions. You also don’t own your flat and the way the world’s going, you’ll never own a flat. Four years is the longest you’ve lived anywhere, and you remember what the most irksome thing to move last time was: the boxes and boxes of books. If only you had some kind of Star Trek-style device that you could point at the heaving, bowing shelves to turn all but the most stylish of your tomes into data, to be stored away and retrieved only when some title bears re-reading.

But then, if you’re like me, you’ve had a Kindle for a year now and found it an endless source of annoyance. Forget the fact that the screen was broken by a light nudge from a shoe and that no one seems to be able to tell you how to get it fixed (accounts of whether Amazon replaces them for free, no questions asked, rub up against complaints about the company offering no solution other than the purchase of a brand new model). Forget also the fact that you’re restricted to what Amazon stocks in its online store (without even touching on the subject of censorship, in the past year I’ve simply not been able to buy most books I’ve wanted to. “Think of a book and start reading it in 30 seconds” my foot). There’s also the fact that most books are plainly run through some sort of conversion software without an editor or proofreader taking the time to check the quality of the end result. So where the editor of the original book has used soft return to fine-tune the letter-spacing, removing the space from between two words and replacing it with a line break, those two words appear stuck together in the e-book file. In the e-book version of Under the Ivy: The Life and Music of Kate Bush by Graeme Thomson, which cost about £10, there was at least one such accidental compound word every second page or so.

And why does the Kindle insist on rendering everything in the same so-so font? Why are designers, copy-editors and typographers &ndash each vital to the book-crafting process &ndash dumped altogether in favour of a one-size-fits-all approach to every genre under the sun? Supposedly, one might think, to give the user more control over how they view the text. Alas, not so much. The user has no choice of font either (at least up to the Kindle 2), and very little in the way of other options. You can make the text bigger or smaller. That’s about it. It’s not much help when trying to read a book like Ways of Seeing by John Berger, where the Kindle seems incapable of fitting an image on the same page as its caption, no matter how big or small you make the writing. The Kindle’s designers seem to have thought of books as mere vessels for vast volumes of text. The user is trying to get the information &ndash or the gist of it &ndash into their brain through their eyes and isn’t really bothered about the method of conveyance, so long as it doesn’t put a strain on their arms or their wallets. If only human beings had a USB port on them, we could do away with text altogether.

In regard to looks as well, the book is still way out in front, with far more potential for character and individuality in its design. Covers can still wow us. They can still make me, as a wannabe graphic designer, miserable with envy. Despite Amazon’s best efforts, even the latest Kindle has all the verve and charm of a pager or electronic organiser. As with all gadgets, it will hold no interest as a physical object after a year on the high street (at least until it’s long forgotten), which is presumably why Amazon is releasing a new version almost annually. How many people are going to regularly upgrade, at £100 a pop, for a bit of fizz and freshness in the feel and appearance of their reading matter?

But then, what to do about the space problem? And the taking-books-on-holiday problem? And the increasing-costs-of-printing-for-independent-presses problem? OK, here’s my solution, my best-of-both-worlds future: books on cartridges. I’m imagining them about the size of Nintendo DS cartridges. Because they come in boxes, skilled designers can still run wild, but the cartridges can also be stored in storage cases, enabling you to fit a bookshelf into something the size of a glasses case for your daily sojourns. The boxes can be displayed prominently in shops, are easily wrapped as gifts, and look super on a shelf, but are smaller than conventional books and &ndash more importantly &ndash much lighter, a mercy when it comes to moving. A design team has full control over how the book looks on the screen when it’s initially booted up, but the user is able to tinker with it themselves. E-readers, in this scenario, would become as ubiquitous as MP3 players, since they’d no longer need to be attached to any particular online bookstore. If books were designed with a touch-screen interface in mind (again, as with Nintendo DS games), the only physical controls you’d strictly need would be an on-off switch.

Of course, being physical objects, cartridges would be more costly than e-books (although they should be recyclable). They’d also be less transferable &ndash but then, Amazon and Apple are already firing on all cylinders to lock their file formats down as tightly as possible in order to discourage “illegal” copying and sharing. At least with a cartridge you’d be able to physically lend someone a book again.

My absolute ideal would be the Star Trek device, enabling books to be magically switched from a physical to an electronic state in moments. But by the time we have anything like that available on the high street, food replicators and teleporters will have changed the world in unimaginable ways. So I’ll stick with my cartridge idea for now. The rest of the world, meanwhile, will likely go on duelling over the imperfections of the two present formats, with the result that both will stick around for a good while yet, neither taking the upper hand.

Approaching the Divine Comedy in the 21st Century

Andrea T Judge takes a modern look at Dante’s famous voyage through the realms of the dead.

Mark Twain once said that a classic is something everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read. No doubt we could trace a long list of books fitting under this category, from the Iliad and Don Quijote to War and Peace and Ulysses. Almost everyone is guilty of having read a classic, and certain erudite individuals can boast quite a few more – usually this makes these people insufferable to be around, which may be the reason why Henry Miller (who never succeeded in writing a classic) said that every man with a bellyful of the classics is an enemy to the human race. Classics are, traditionally, very long, very complex, or both at the same time. They are not easy to read, and unless someone gives you a good reason to pick one up, you probably won’t.

In this hypothetical list of books which are simultaneously attractive and repulsive to such uncommon degrees, the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri deserves a special mention. If fame is half the reason why people read classics, then it needs no further encouragement. Jorge Luis Borges called it ‘the best book in literature’ and TS Eliot used its author as the standard for comparisons with Shakespeare. At the same time, the notion of a seven-hundred-year old tale which appears like a catalogue on what God does and does not want us to do is not the kind of thing which you would imagine to fly off the bookshelves. From Mark Twain’s point of view, Dante’s book is a classic among classics.

It is a shame that all the fame around this ancient volume should also have generated a great deal of false expectations. For, in certain ways, the Divine Comedy hardly belongs in the ranks of its fellow classics. For starters, it is easily one of the shorter books. All three canticles put together make for about 450 pages, against the 800 of the Iliad and Odyssey or the 600 of the Aeneid. If you read the Inferno alone, which is self-contained, it stands at just over 30,000 words – a third of the length of an average novel. It is also remarkably easy to read. It has none of the archaic grandiloquence of Beowulf or Gilgamesh, and none of the intricate linguistic constructions which characterise the modern classics by Joyce or Proust. The narrative is synthetic and adventurous, and the language, while sophisticated, is always functional to the telling of the story.

Even so, the Divine Comedy’s reputation as a classic would not be half as ironic if it weren’t that the poem’s own opening is a metaphor for our relationship with the classics. In the first Canto of the poem, Dante is walking through a forest and meets the spirit of Virgil, the author of the Aeneid – what the middle ages considered to be the classic among classics. Virgil is described as a ‘well-spring / From which such copious floods of eloquence / Have issued’, a line which probably could have been cast on Joyce’s grave with no risk of protestations, and Dante hopes to relate to him yet – ‘avail me the long study and great love / That have impelled me to explore thy volume,’ he says, echoing the plight of any English Literature student who sets out to write an essay on Moby Dick, Don Juan or Paradise Lost.

Obviously, the relationship between Dante and Virgil has a much broader meaning as well – it stands for the relationship between the past and the present, with the Latin master bearing a torch from other times and guiding the (then) modern spirit of Dante. But this also encapsulates the metaphoric register which really gives the poem its own modernity (or, in Eliot’s term, its ‘universality’), and which truly makes it worth reading even seven-hundred years after its writing. Consider, for example, the description of the souls in the fifth Canto, those damned for the sin of lust.

And as the wings of starlings bear them on
In the cold season in large band and full,
So doth that blast the spirits maledict;
It hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them;
No hope doth comfort them for evermore,
Not of repose, but even of lesser pain.
And as the cranes go chanting forth their lays,
Making in air a long line of themselves,
So saw I coming, uttering lamentations,
Shadows borne onward by the aforesaid stress.

The idea that the Divine Comedy should be a collection of cautionary Christian vignettes simply does not hold, for the sin is always a metaphor for the punishment – and the other way round. The above passage doesn’t represent what happens to you after life if you live in lust, but what happens in life – and the souls exemplify this as they are tossed around by the winds of their desires, ‘hither, thither, downward, upward,’ and abandoned in the storm of their appetites, as ‘no hope doth comfort them, not [even] of repose.’ As Dante proceeds deeper into hell, the other torments conform to this vision – the greedy are drowned in the mud of their own squalor, the liars are burning in the double flame of their lies, the murderous are plunged in blood, and so on.

Dante’s Inferno is not the hell of the damned, but the hell of the living – our own hell. As the canvas of the Commedia expands into a monumental metaphor for human history, the journey becomes our own journey through our everyday world, testifying to the suffering of those who live in vice, without apparent punishment, but punished by their own vice. By the time one reaches the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, which are famously less entertaining than the Inferno but equally complex, the modernity of the poem has become self-evident. It is not the castigation that follows evil, but the horror of evil itself, that makes the Inferno such a memorably poignant representation. Similarly the humanity of the other two canticles goes well beyond the sophisticated symbolic parables that they present. If the Divine Comedy is a classic, then the idea itself of the genre must be founded on a paradox – and not just because the poem is easy to read and relatively short. As we opened with a citation on the subject, so shall we close. In the words of Edith Wharton, then: A classic is not a classic because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.

Post-script: A question which comes up frequently is – which translation should I choose? An edition in verse is a must, but the preference between rhyming translations or ones in free/blank verse must remain subjective. By all means take a look at more than one translation – they can be very different from each other! The first Canto is no more than two or three pages long, so reading it a few times to compare different versions is not much of a chore. Some translations retain the rhyme. If those impress you and seem more musical, then stick with one of them. If you find the free-flowing narrative effect that results from less constrictive verse to be most stimulating, then forsake the rhymes and go for that.

Andrea T Judge grew up in Rome and has studied literature in the UK and the Caribbean. He has worked as freelance critic of movies and games, as translator in Germany, and as sports journalist in France (where he made money by dressing up as a cartoon in Disneyland). He has also kept up a blog of rants and cultural criticism at The Rant Machine. He is currently employed on cruise ships in the Caribbean.

What are lyric and epic poetry and why does it matter?

Part 1 of a trilogy of articles in which Andrea T Judge discusses the history and evolution of these major poetic forms and what they mean to us today.

When, almost one hundred years ago, John Drinkwater was asked to write his book The Lyric as an introduction to this literary concept, he discussed “the commonly accepted opinion that a lyric is an expression of personal emotion” and reached the conclusion that “lyric and poetry are synonymous terms”. No doubt both statements can be traced back to a history of criticism. John Stuart Mill, writing in 1833, claimed that ‘Lyric poetry is more eminently and peculiarly poetry than any other’, and Edgar Allan Poe, in his ‘Poetic Principle’, already draws connections between the pure ‘Poetic Sentiment’ and the lyric. Such a use of the term ‘lyric’, bordering on tautology, eventually led Northrop Frye to claim in his Anatomy of Criticism that “we use [the terms ‘epic’ and ‘lyric’] chiefly as jargon or trade slang for long and short (or shorter) poems respectively”.

The juxtaposition of lyric and personal expression finds instead its roots in Hegel, who wrote just before Mills, and who was the first to oppose ‘the objective character of the Epos’ to ‘the subjective principle of the Lyric’. This view was later picked up by such thinkers as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, and even Frye, in a paraphrase of Mill, concedes that “the lyric poet normally pretends to be talking to himself or to someone else” and that “the lyric is the poet presenting the image in relation to himself”. The lyric, in the words of Hegel, was about ‘insulation’ and ‘self-expression’.

Though lyric poetry is one of the most ancient forms of written expression in the world, its theoretical history is actually quite young. It is also, as we have seen, rather confusing, because most critics before the 19th Century simply saw the term ‘lyric’ as synonymous for ‘poetry’, as Drinkwater still did. The only paradigm on which most thinkers seem to agree is that of the lyric as poetry of address, but this is itself problematic. An endless array of examples can be found for poets who speak ‘to’ someone, of course, but an equally endless list of exceptions can also be provided, in classical and modern poetry alike. Some of the texts which are usually categorised as ‘lyrics’ of the ancient world barely look like poetry at all, and rather seem like personal notes which the author has left in some diary or journal. Here’s a full poem by Alcaeus:

“Now we must get drunk and drink whether we want to or not, because Myrsilus is dead.”

Obviously the fragmentary remains of the classical tradition suggest that some of these works may simply be incomplete poems, but even within this selfsame tradition there are at least four recognised genres of lyric poetry (monodic, elegiac, iambic, choral), none of which can simply be reduced to a simple ‘poetry of address’ genre. Modern poetry has even more cases of verse that does not speak to a specific ‘you’.

Even so, two currents of vocative poetry can readily be identified in the history of the lyric. The first in chronological order is the ‘classical’ or ‘ancient’ model: poetry addressed to the gods, such as Sappho’s globally famous prayer to Aphrodite, or the Book of Psalms in the Bible. The second is the ‘modern’ model, which is poetry addressed to a loved one, particularly popular in courtly poetry of the middle ages and the Renaissance. Probably the most important and influential figure in popularising this shift was Petrarch, whose monumental ‘Song Book’ was a collection entirely dedicated to an idealised and unattainable woman he calls Laura. While his address to Laura was normally indirect (Petrarch speaks to or about an allegorical figure called ‘Love’ as an intermediary, like Sappho did with Aphrodite), it still signals a first step in the shift of focus from the divine to the earthly, from the transcendent to the immanent, from the immortal to the daily. It must be stressed that this shift was very gradual – Petrarch’s original verse idealised Laura almost to the status of a goddess. But it became the model for over three centuries of poetry all over Europe (including Shakespeare’s own sonnets) and it virtually institutionalised the lyric, to the point that the notion of writing ‘to a girl/woman one loves’ is still popularly conceived as one of the most natural and sincere reasons behind the writing of a poem (slightly less so the idea of writing ‘to a boy/man’; the register of the Song Book was androcentric and so was its heritage).

Now, lyric poetry is usually set in opposition to epic poetry (again, the dialectic was best explored by Hegel). But literary criticism of epic poetry is far, far more ancient than that of the lyric tradition, going as far back as Aristotle. This suggests that the dichotomy between the lyric and the epic is more a construction of the moderns than a self-evident distinction within the genre(s) of poetry. Aristotle defines the epic as ‘that poetic imitation which is narrative in form and employs a single metre,’ and this is a very simple definition. So it is somewhat of a mystery where the later tenets of the genre emerged from. Judging by Homer’s proselytes, from Virgil to Milton and Byron, an epic is a poem of twelve or twenty-four books, starting in the middle of the action (in medias res) and often involving flashbacks. But these standards are violated by just about every other member of the genre out there, from primary epics like Gilgamesh and Beowulf to later ones such as the Divine Comedy or Jerusalem Delivered. The problem is that there are virtually no common canons to speak of a ‘genre’ whatsoever, not even metrical properties. Much like ‘lyric’ has often been used to signify ‘poetry,’ so the term ‘epic’ has evolved from Aristotle’s choice of words (“a poem on a great scale”) to become a mere synonym of ‘grand,’ to the point that any story of great magnitude or import is usually referred to as epic (or even an epic), from War and Peace and Lord of the Rings to Star Wars and Titanic.

Hegel’s groundbreaking innovation was to treat both lyric and epic as literary qualities, rather than as genres. For this reason he sets them up in a dialectic relation where the lyric speaks about the individual and the epic about society – a profoundly influential perspective which became the basis for most theory on the subject. Even so, Hegel was writing at a time when the medium of the novel was still very young (and not much respected). Now that it has become dominant, the novel seems a conspicuous absence from this grand literary scheme. Aristotle’s specification that the epic “is narrative in form” reveals that the original distinction between poetic types was not so much between subjective and objective, or between long and short verse, but between poems which told a story and poems which did not. In other words, a term was required to distinguish between narrative and non-narrative poems. In the age before the novel, verse was the only written form for recounting stories short of turning to pure historians like Herodotus. ‘Epic’ retrospectively became the all-encompassing term to describe poems which directly told stories; ‘lyric’ described most of those which did not, with the rest comprising philosophy or scientific texts which were written in verse. When the novel emerged, proving so flexible and enjoyable a way of weaving a tale, it quickly absorbed the roles of narration which until then had been the prerogative of the epic. On this account, numerous novels have been said to be epics in their own right, while modern poetic epics are seldom written and even less read anymore. Non-narrative poetry, by contrast, remained insulated and its roles were never appropriated by other forms. As a consequence, the broad term ‘lyric,’ which never came to be applied to anything else, became no more than another word for poetry. The closest thing to a ‘misappropriation’ of the role of poetry has been performed Twentieth Century music, in which songs are usually non-narrative and the spoken words of which we now refer to as ‘lyrics’.

This is not to suggest that, on account of the confusion and debate over the definitions, studies of the lyric and the epic should be considered infertile. However, the revolutionary impact of new forms and mediums over the last two centuries means that old readings of these two categories in terms of genre are no longer tenable, if they ever have been. The canons are simply not stable. The epic and lyric are not labels that we can stick upon poems, nor signposts to bind them together. There is, perhaps, no longer any genre of poem which can be fixed in a category by means of its history – even metre, one of the most ancient poetic marks of belonging, has faded in prominence as a banner for recognition. The only thing left to study is the structure of the poem. It is not genre but structure that reveals the epic or lyric quality of verse, and it is therefore to this topic that our next essays shall turn their attention.

Andrea T Judge grew up in Rome and has studied literature extensively through courses in the UK and the Caribbean. He writes football journalism for the website Football Italiano and kept up a blog of rants and cultural criticism at The Rant Machine. He has recently set off adventuring.