Discover more from Fragmentary
Ramblings on the value of physical text
How often do you print?
I just realised this is a thing; that’s to say, a part of the process. Or, of my process. There’s a sense of reality in printing (and reading on paper) a finished novel. In theory, you can go through an entire creative effort without ever producing paper on your desktop, but for me there’s a separate space of “tangible book” which has a particular moment and a set of uses. This morning I printed the first two chapters to look at, and aside from the sense of pleasure in seeing a physical manifestation of work done (in this instance a sort of echo, because I held the whole book in A4 recycled a while ago) there’s a difference between words on screen and words on paper.
Holding paper, I notice different things. The work feels different - different tonal issues arise, new sections I need to rewrite. It’s akin to - but different again from - reading a book aloud and hearing the cadences, the unintentional repetitions and homonyms, the blunt force wrongness of an unmodified word. The text is not different, but the experience is, and of course it’s still the paper experience of my book that most people will have. (I think - a couple of my books were bigger sellers as ebooks than paper in some markets, but as far as I know, perhaps even moreso now than a few years ago, paper remains on the throne.)
There are actual science reasons why analogue reading is different - and as the writing process at this point is founded on reading and re-reading, those aspects must be interwoven with the creative edit, irrespective of whether the creative process of itself works differently in the brain depending on the medium in which it is iterated. Whether it’s an inherent quality in the combination of tactile experience and inert text, or whether it’s contingent on my knowledge that digital text is both infinitely editable and subject to sudden interruption when my desktop decides to notify me of something, I find there’s a placidity and a sense of authenticity in the work. I’m always wary of mystifying the tree’s presence in the printed book or the long inheritance of paper, but - be it a societal form or something more fundamental - paper feels more “in the world”.
As an aside: I’ve always felt that the e-readers we have for now represent a slightly wretched formulation of the technology; they’re cheap (ish) and essentially intended as shop fronts we carry with us, portals operated by corporations granted intimate access to what I occasionally refer to as the “hearth space”. They have amazing positives and soggy, disappointing negatives. Books shouldn’t read you back - but more than that, e-readers are unsatisfying. You can’t riffle the pages, flick through them or sign them; they don’t weather or acquire historical scars and you can’t really make notes in the back pages. (Two of my books were initiated in the back of others; Tigerman in the back of my copy of Cloud Atlas, driven by a kind of happy fury at David Mitchell’s sheer brilliance and imaginative effrontery in writing something so remarkable; and Gnomon, the first notes of which are scribbled in the end pages of Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons On Particle Physics. Both, incidentally, on plane journeys.) That’s not to say that there can’t be an e-reader of quality and splendour; just that there doesn’t seem to be a proper incentive to create one given the way the market works, at least at the moment. Every so often I try to build one in my head. Well, one day. It’s interesting to ask how a digitally-mediated reading device might possess the traits of the physical world, or whether indeed that’s a contradiction in terms.
I’m sure someone will come along and tie all this to Csikszentmihalyi’s FLOW (no, I did not spell that correctly on the first go; I haven’t had to type his name since 2013. For the record, it’s apparently pronounced “Chick sent me high”) and other discourses between neuroscience, psychology and art. But in the meantime…
I realise I print to reassure myself and feel the reality of a long term project. I do it to examine something with a different mind, and to peer at the dark side of the novelistic moon.
How about you?
Paper versions of Fragmentary are available through Absolutely Don’t Press*.
*no, they aren’t.