Reading and writing: A physical experience
We readers live extravagant lives in our heads but we're not just huge brains in unfeeling blobs, we're bodies too and we read with our bodies as well as our minds. Yes, I think it makes a difference to the experience of reading a novel, whether you read it whilst holding a heavy hardcover in your hands, something weighty in value, something chunky enough to demand to be held with care and respect or you might drop it on your leg and gouge a little dent; or whether you read it whilst gripping a paperback - an object designed to be thrown into bags, dunked into the bath, to survive good loving, to be a friend in fair weather or ill. And so yes of course I think it makes a difference to the experience of reading whether you read on a screen or off a page; whether you turn the page of your book by licking your finger and touching it to the paper, rough like dry skin; or whether you do it by prodding or swiping and dabbing a button down.
Writers know that the brain is influenced by physical acts; that the imagination can be fettered or freed by the body. They try writing in all positions, all rooms, all lights, all devices, all positions, until they find the one that works for them. Some write in the cocoon of bed, propped up; some at an empty desk, like an old-fashioned secretary; one of my authors writes sitting up straight on a hard chair, typewriter balanced on her knee; several will only write in longhand; all choose their keyboard, their screen, their pen, their paper, their chair, with the utmost care and attention. In order to take what they need from their minds, their bodies need to be in a state of neutral passivity, as comfortable as a body can be; or in a state of agitated action, fingers flying; or flowing like script from a pen; or tapping, with a repetitive action that demands the life on the screen be all the colour, all the excitement, the writing room can offer.
I do more than half of my writing on my iPad these days and what sweet relief it was when I switched to the new model a few months ago and had to buy a new keyboard with it. I hadn't realised how tired I had become of the old black keys I'd had - lord we'd seen too much of one another over the past year and they didn't compress enough, I tell you! When I press a key I want to feel it go down, you know what I mean? My new keyboard answers me with some sweet dull thudding as I type on, a modern sort of clack. And it's grey, not black, no longer for me the sticky old black of the long insomniac nights. Good riddance, disobedient black* keys!
Oh how I loathed those sidebar page turn buttons on the early ereaders, the unsatisfying unclickiness of the dull little tabs. I'm turning a page, goddammit, I want to feel something moving. How my body recoils from stabbing at a glass screen too, it's like touching wet unvarnished wood to me or licking a burnished metal spoon, ugh. Like trying to put your finger through a closed window or tapping someone who won't bloody wake up. So, hurrah for the swipe! Closest mimic of the act of turning paper pages we have, the whoosh of the swipe requires real movement for us, so we're not just sitting there reading without moving a muscle, literally; we have to join in, help the author out. The gesture from right to left spurs us on in our fantasy world - as though we're riding a wave, when it's as good as it gets; as though we're being carried away by a story, almost, in a galleon. (Oh of course I'm fanciful, I didn't get where I am today without fancy.)
Which emotions are freed by swiping? Just as walking and running shake out our thinking and aid creativity, surely the little swipe turns a cog somewhere which turns a wheel. Just as turning a paper page and holding a stack of pages in one's hand fires a piston. Does the swipe speed us on in our read (surely more than the plodding pace of stabbing at a button or a screen)? What impact does the percentage-read tally as opposed to a page number have on our experience? The percentile predicts the ending: You have read 39% (that means I have 61% left...). How much do we miss the tangible pleasures of folding over the corners of pages, of scratching a pencil across paper rather than highlighting favourite sections? I'm not mourning these rituals - I still have them - I'm not deploring the electronic experience. I'm just asking: what difference does it make to readers?
If you're considering publishing a book primarily in digital format, consider how ebooks are bought. Firstly: free samples are downloaded. You have to deliver, hard, in the first few pages. Your book will be in a crowded marketplace and there will be no heavy paper, no beautiful font, no tactile jacket to seduce the reader. Your book must lure the reader in and trap them. Think about pace: if you're writing genre fiction, consider shorter chapters, shorter sentences, to encourage eager swooshing. Look at the (genre) bestseller lists: what sort of books do well in e-format? Why? Are there any common themes or traits? What is this marketplace?
Publishers have responded to the popularity of ebooks with beautiful physical objects. Books in the English language markets have surely never been more individualised, better curated, lovelier objects? When a publisher and a designer start to consider how to package a novel, they start with the text. To where does this book transport the reader, and how? What metaphorical gifts are embodied in this story? They consider what experience they want the reader to have, not only when they read the book, but when they pick it up, when they hold it, when they lick their finger and touch the paper. How should the eye be pleased, before the heart is engaged, the mind enthralled? Shall we sit, cocooned in bed, to read this book? Shall we stand, on a train, hanging onto the rail, swaying? Shall we read, walking, not looking up? Shall we swoosh, shall we dab, shall we tap? Shall we feel the weight of this novel? Shall we consider it our friend? Shall we read by the fire? Shall we lie by the pool? How shall we write, how shall we read?
* I can't write of Black! Black! without thinking of this...and this... and so, as this is my last blog of the summer, let me wish you happy holidays and leave you laughing until you cry with me. We crawl on our knees towards our doom! See you in September. Well, you'll see me.