What follows is a conversation between the book designer Peter Mendelsund and the author Mark Z. Danielewski.
Peter Mendelsund: Before we get into a discussion about the package for your new book, The Fifty Year Sword, I'd love to address some larger questions about the future of the physical book... OK?
One of the things I like about you, Mark, is that you embrace all formats. You are obviously invested in the book — the actual, tangible artifact — as well as being (from what you've told me) yea-saying about the opportunities presented by the ebook and other digital forms. Even more importantly, you seem to be interested in exploiting these forms, graphically, to their utmost extent.
What do you see on the horizon for books — for text? Most people seem to describe the future of the book as a single, evolutionary line: the physical book being replaced by the virtual. Is this a view you subscribe to?
Mark Z. Danielewski: The move to digital is inevitable. Just as we moved from the walls of caves to canvas and plasma, we will leave the page. Not to say the page will completely vanish. Banksy proves that with his return to urban Lascaux in every city.
I still like to grab a hunk of charcoal and scratch away on my publisher's walls, but I admire Hockney too for drawing beauty out of an iPad.
Much of the dialogue these days concerns what we gain with ebooks — and there is much to gain: ease with duplication, storage, portability, carrying out searches, quoting, linking, researching, editing, of course, maybe even creating mash-ups, possibilities not yet imagined, enticing possibilities — but you and I are in a position to give voice to what will be lost.
The way many tablets automatically alter fonts, for example, or authorize the reader to select from a limited list, disregards a tradition, centuries old, of designing and carefully selecting a type design. And it's a tradition not born out of constriction and control, I think, but expression and the aesthetics of sense and beauty. We both know how much time goes into designing a book. Personally, I go through hundreds of fonts before choosing one. And that's just the start: margin size matters (put that on a T-shirt!). Folios. Colors, of course. Not to mention how the book as an object sits in the reader's hand.
Only Revolutions — in the way the two protagonists move through the book, getting closer and closer until they physically meet in the center, or come as close as they can to meeting, only to slide past one another, farther and farther apart from one another — made use of the three-dimensionality of the codex. That particular experience will be lost in any e-version. Maybe it's worth it, but in order to understand worth we first have to account for cost.
How is meaning altered if a book is typeset in Legacy instead of Garamond or Minion? How is meaning altered if word density is constant? If ink color is uniform? If there is no cover?
That's one big concern I have: covers. I love covers. I love the communication of colors that goes on between strangers reading on a subway or a bus or in coffee houses or on some elaborate campus at some even more elaborate tech company, where else?, on a shooting range?, a landfill, stop laughing, a prison yard?, a strip club?, wearing a T-shirt stating Margin Size Matters? Don't F*ck With My Kerning?, but seriously, what happens to covers? Tablets don't support them (or at least don't display them for others to see). Websites selling ebooks typically offer tiny icons as opposed to lovely, large figurings of content. More so than text, I sense covers are imperiled. Do you agree? See a new way they can adapt to a new world of battery-powered reading? Or here's an ugly one: Will covers even be necessary?
P: [Long, dramatic pause] It's an important question, and I think they will be necessary: though only for physical books. Like you, I don't believe that physical books and their attendant covers will disappear entirely. The market for them will change (it will, of course, shrink significantly) but I would say that physical books, and specifically of the kind that you, Mark, have produced over the years — books which take full advantage of their corporeality; books which don't cede the authority of the author over word density and typeface; books whose meaning, as you put it, is organically tied to the physical medium, tied to the inherent drama of ink on paper — these types of books will be more important than ever. Not to mention that we will want, going forward, a bounded, immutable, personal object to be a vehicle for, and a memento of, a great reading experience.
David Foster Wallace's copy of Ratner's Star
So: yes to the survival of the physical book and thus the physical cover.
But that being said, most of our reading will be done digitally, without a doubt.
And that being said: digital "covers" are not "necessary," like, AT ALL.
In fact we are all much, much better off without them. They are a misguided form of nostalgic thinking. (This, from the cover designer?) We read differently when we read digitally. We digest, curate and collect, manipulate, and share text differently in the digital realm. I would even go so far as to say that we read at a different rate, and with a different cadence when we read on a device as opposed to when we have a book in our hands. The big benefits of digital text (the ones you pointed out: speed, reproducibility,