Hard Copy

There's more to a book than mere words

The other day I was on an American Airlines flight home, and as it crossed the Sierra Nevada and began its descent toward SFO, the stewardess made the usual announcement. “Please shut off all electronic devices,” she said, and then added a litany of what she meant. “Computers, iPods, Gameboys, Kindles. Anything with an on-off switch.” It was the first time I heard the Kindle mentioned as something with the potential to interfere with aircraft navigation systems.

I glanced out the window at the snow-capped peaks, looked ahead to the verdant Central Valley, checked my seatbelt and returned to the well-worn Sonoma County public library paperback copy of Lucky Jim that I had been reading since we left Dallas. The Kingsley Amis satire of academia written back in 1953 still resonates well in the 21st century, no batteries required and with no prohibition on reading below 20,000 feet.

I’m an author. I write books for a living. I want the biggest audience I can garner for my work, and so I embrace the new technologies. My latest book is electronic-reader-friendly. You can read it for $9.99 on your Kindle, and I hope that you do. But if you choose the electronic version of Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets, you’ll miss more than the opportunity to read during take-off and landing.

The dust jacket that Georgiana Goodwin designed is brilliant. Literally. Printed on foil paper, the images explode: a slithering and glistening yellow python, an ominous leopard, a wild-eyed chimpanzee and a sharp-toothed alligator poised to bite your thumb off. If you carry around this book, it’s bound to start conversations with passersby. Same with Lucky Jim and its ominous Edward Gorey cover illustration, or any other book made up of words printed with ink on paper.

No one knows what you’re reading when you close your Kindle and shut it off. All that shows is a nondescript plastic box that advertises you as an early adopter of new technology. That anonymity may serve you well if your taste in reading material tends toward pornography or how-to books on bomb-making. But I wager most of us enjoy the impromptu conversations that start with a glance at a book cover.

If you want to read Lucky Jim on your Kindle, you’re out of luck even if you’re not descending toward SFO. It’s not (yet) available on the Amazon electronic reader device, although as of this writing Amazon offers to connect you with 78 used copies of the Penguin paperback edition for as little as 90 cents each. A basic Kindle goes for $259, plus at least $9.99 for each downloaded book.

Under the sparkling Forbidden Creatures dust jacket is another surprise. The hardcover itself is textured and as green as the California Central Valley looks from 20,000 feet and dropping. It is embossed with the pattern of alligator skin. Feel the book cover, and you feel one of the eerie animals in the story. The endpapers explode with wild swirls of yellow, reflecting the python.

Don’t look for a switch that allows you to change typefaces on the non-Kindle edition. The choice of the nonintrusive and easy-to-read Akzidenz Grotesque Bold Condensed typeface was made for you. That’s part of our job as authors, editors and book designers. We research and write the book, edit it and figure out how to make it appropriately appealing as a unique piece of work. It becomes what a book is: a physical and lasting artifact of our culture.

The Kindle is a grand new tool, but it’s no book.

Peter Laufer is a journalist based in Bodega Bay. He is the James N. Wallace Chair in Journalism at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. His newest book is ‘Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets.’ www.peterlaufer.com.

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