Going Beyond Reading about Reading | Review of “Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: Paper, Pixels and the Lasting Impression of Books” by Merilyn Simonds (2017) ECW Press

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We have all ponder over the fact that the way we read has changed in the past number of years. The arguments ranging from the “feel of the printed pages” to “the speed of which content comes to me digitally” has bombarded numerous discourses for the last little while causing more confusion among us. But it has taken a writer like Merilyn Simonds to thoughtfully and personally investigate the way books are published and consumed to give us readers some personal points into the craft to help us understand better the activity many of us enjoy so much. Hence, Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: Paper, Pixels and the Lasting Impression of Books is one of those reads that is worth not only reading but pondering over.

A Paper World Pages 17, 18

My sons and I belong to the last two generations to grow up in an entirely paper world. The first words we read were pressed into paper. By the time I was thirty, I was writing on a computer; by the time my sons were adolescents, most of what they read was onscreen. But our first books, both theirs and mine, were printed much as Johannes Gutenburg printed books six centuries before.

*****

We’re caught in a paradigm shift. Words are the constant, with paper on one shore, pixels on the other. My sons and I stand in the middle, a foot balanced on either side. My parents would never have believed that a world without paper was possible. My grandchildren will never fully grasp the extent to which paper served us all we wanted and needed to know. I have walled every room in my house with books; my granddaughter can hold more books than that in just one hand.

Simonds has mixed a perfect book together here no matter what format a reader uses to absorb this work. In it, she talks about the process of producing one of her works in both print format (in collaboration with Kingston, Canada printer Hugh Barclay) and a digital edition (with her son Erik). This book documents not only her honest observations with working with both people on this book but also adds historical facts on the history of reading habits and publishing.

A Puzzling of Pixels Page 57-58

I wonder if the intangibility of onscreen text plays a role, too in the paper/pixel preference game. I’ve suffered enough computer crises to know that digital storage is not to be trusted. I now keep backups of my backups. Paper may be fragile, subject to tearing and rot and spilled coffee, but printing words on paper is like carving them in stone compared to the ephemeral world of pixels, where words can disappear from epaper as if written in invisible ink.

For whatever reason, after almost fifty years of digital innovation, physical paper remains the gold standard. Engineers, designers, and user-interface experts are engaged not in invention but in technological mimicry, working hard to make reading on an ereader or tablet as close to reading on paper as possible. The Kindle screen looks like a page in a paperback. iBooks includes fairly realistic page-turning. Both of thew will seem like square wheels if South Korea’s KAIST Institute of Information Technology Convergence perfects its interface that will allow a reader to see already-read pages on the left and unread pages on the right, exactly like a paper book.

But the question remains: why are scientists working so hard to make plastic screens exactly like paper? Can’t we have both – eat our cake and pie, too? Paper is lovely to touch; screens are workhorses at scrolling and searching and ferrying volumes across oceans and continents.

I want both.

Simonds’ thoughts here go off into wonderful tangents at times, which truly reflect the thoughts and wants of true book fans. This book is a reflection of what many of us think and want from our reading materials right now without being too scientific or deeply philosophical.

Into The Hellbox pages 147-148

I set a few more lines, but I am too slow for Hugh. He fires me, which is a relief. I can spend hours at the computer happily inserting a comma and taking it out, but to pick out the letters physically, whether for practical reasons of spacing or because Stupid Merilyn has been at it again, drives me to distraction.

Hugh carries on until all four chases are locked up, or down, I forget which. Every so often he sends me an email, complaining that I use too many commas, or have such an affection for H’s that he has been forced to buy more.

“What happens next?” I ask when I see the four chases lined up neatly on the glass. The studio has always struck me as dirty and disorganized, but the better I get to know Hugh, and the closer I look, the more I see a different kind of order, measured and controlled, exerted by the process itself.

“Now I print,” says Hugh. “I don’t have enough type to set more pages.”

Merilyn Simonds has truly given a collection of  thoughts to ponder over in her book Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: Paper, Pixels and the Last Impression of Books. This is one of those books I sincerely encourage readers to take their time with and reflect over while perusing the pages.

*****

Link to Merilyn Simonds’ website

Link to ECW Press’ website for Gutenberg’s Fingerprint

(I had the pleasure of purchasing this book at Ben McNally’s Books in Toronto recently)

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