Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

In the future all books will be blank

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The Globe & Mail today has posted a gallery of images from Robert Bringhurst’s recent book The Surface of Meaning. Bringhurst, an American expat living in British Columbia, is one of the world’s leading authorities on book design and this volume is his loving ode to the history of book and letterform design in Canada.

Interestingly, I had pitched a similar gallery some months ago to CBC Arts Online but they turned it down because it was felt the book’s images weren’t “grabby”. (Their word.) I was disappointed, but having now seen both the book and the Globe Books web gallery, I have to say their instincts were dead on. While the book is gorgeous, the web gallery really falls flat. This is not the fault of the book or its images, but of the web, which can’t convey the subtle qualities of the reproductions in Bringhurst’s book.

This, of course, is hugely ironic. Stay with me on this. Just at a time when the grand mystical puzzle tormenting every MBA suit in the publishing industry is how to capitalize on e-books without fucking themselves the way the music industry did, here we have a web gallery about a beautiful book celebrating beautiful books which exemplifies just how crappy a substitute for books the electronic interface is. Ha!

But of course the suits don’t actually care about that. They just want to find a portable interface that people will buy en masse. Then, just as is now the case with music, rather than buying an object—a book—you will buy participation in an agreement. Rather than having something on your shelf in your den that you can pick up and materially call your own, you will have a license to interact with a digitized version of someone else’s intellectual property. You won’t own books, you will own contracts.

Publishing folk today seem hell bent on undoing everything that Bringhurst writes so lovingly about in The Surface of Meaning. They want to undo exactly what they themselves and all their predecessors have been working so hard at for so many years. That is, building a book publishing industry. It is a bit sick, because many of them would love nothing more than to not have to publish books at all.

So of course, The Surface of Meaning is much more than a history of books in Canada. It is in fact Bringhurst’s ode to the marriage between paper books (hello retronym) and typography. With the enthusiastic help of the profit hungry, the internet and computers are muscling their way between those two, slowly prying the printed word away from the page.

From this one can imagine a bizarre Borgesian future in which all books are blank.


E-readers are great for carrying large or heavy or multiple books at one time. I just read "Gone With the Wind" for the first time and it was a doozy to carry in my purse.

@snickerzman Glad to hear you are an avid reader of papers and mags. They need all the support they can get these days. Of course, there is the issue of the environment there. Chopping down all those trees. I think the electronic format has a place. The problem is that business types are often primarily interested in maximizing profit, so they will happily sacrifice things that are culturally valuable to achieve that goal. Some text is disposable. Sometimes you want a magazine article, but you don't want to store that magazine. There is a place in the world for both formats. But I wonder if in ten years, buying books will be like buying vinyl LPs today. To me, that would be a shame.

@shawnsyms I think that is the big hurdle that may in the end prove insurmountable. Also, why does anyone need to carry around a library of 500 books on a pda? It's not like music, where you can consume 15 to 30 songs in one subway ride. Also, as you point out, size is currently a problem. You need a certain page size for comfortable reading. iPods and phones are nice and small.

@calisaurus I think people who are interested in the subject will seek out the book to have a look at it after seeing the gallery. Regarding image quality, I don't think many people would look at that gallery and then zip straight over to Amazon to order the book.

In the past, I have downloaded ebooks to my PDA. I have read some books on my computer, and I now own an iPhone, and have downloaded books to it as well.

I still like paper. I just like turning pages and flipping through books. I can't see how ebooks will be able to replicate paper. I absolutely dislike reading books on my computer, and my iPhone is too small. The PDA was okay, but not great. I haven't seen an eBook reader yet, so I will reserve judgment, but I'm not holding out high hopes.

I really like to see the written word on the printed page. Heck, I still subscribe to two newspapers, and a dozen magazines. Does anyone else still read the paper?

I saw an eBook reader for the first time on the streetcar today. It didn't look very warm and fuzzy!

Shawn Syms

Do you think the web gallery will influence people not to buy the book, because they feel like they've seen the images already (although substandard ones), or do you think it will serve to promote the book in a positive (sales $$$) way?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Shaun Smith

Shaun Smith is a novelist and journalist living in Toronto. His young adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in January 2009 by the Dundurn Group.

Go to Shaun Smith ’s Author Page