Experimenting with form and structure in ebooks is a recipe for confusion

 

[NB: This blog post was originally posted on the Momentum Blog]

I’ve been reading ebooks for a long time. People complain nowadays about quality control in ebooks, but when I started reading them there was no quality assurance whatsoever. Books were all over the place. Most books were pirated or typed out from classic editions of the text by enterprising amateurs. There were random line and page breaks scattered throughout most books, and you can forget about footnotes. The most memorable example of my confusion was when I tried to read a (most probably pirated) version of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace*, which is full of footnotes, and even contains footnotes based on footnotes**. It was baffling to me. The book itself is a little baffling anyway, but it wasn’t until I got my hands on my Kindle and read the rest of the book digitally that I felt like it made more sense.

All of this is leading to a chance conversation with a few people on Twitter the other day, who were talking about the possibility of converting Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves to an ebook. And also to a conversation with my mother. To start from the end, she (my mother) was talking about reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the book by Jonathan Safran Foer that has recently been made into an Oscar-nominated film. She is currently attempting to read the book on her Kindle. Having not read it myself, I couldn’t tell her that the book wasn’t an experimental journey into the nature of books and the structure of stories. I just said, “Maybe there’s something wrong with the ebook.” And she said, “That’s what I thought.”

And that got me to thinking. We (as in literate human beings) have been reading from paper books for hundreds of years. We’re pretty comfortable with the form of a paper book, so when an author decides to mess around with it, for artistic purposes or even for shits and giggles, we get it. In ebooks, however, most readers don’t know the capabilities or the limitations of the form. Every quirk (which is most likely an error) may just be the author playing with our minds.

So this brings me back to my conversation on Twitter. I implore you, Mr Franklin – and anyone else considering it – please don’t ever try to convert House of Leaves to an ebook. You’ll just confuse my mother.

 

*Appropriately enough, this is a footnote. I would like to point out that the only reason I was using a pirated version of a book is because I knew that my first-gen Kindle was in the post from the US and had already bought an electronic copy for the reader but couldn’t read it anywhere.

**This is another footnote. Just because.

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