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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Value of Books, Print Books

I’m Writing from NCTE, Where I Wander Through Halls Filled with Books

and so the question comes, what is the particular nature of a print book, as opposed to the same text and art on, say, a Kindle or any other soon-to-appear form of e-reader? I was prompted to think of this by looking at four books: there are three new Lincoln books that are extravaganzas of visual display: Martin Sandler’s Lincoln Through the Lens is the most conventional: an oversize book on clear white paper that shows off the many period photos and prints; Candace Fleming’s A Scrapbook Look at the Lincolns, and Barry Denenberg’s Lincoln Shot (discussed in this joint review push the visual field further, and further. I have only glanced at them — this is not a review — but, like the Times reviewer — the experiments with format (the Denenberg is extremely thin and tall; the Fleming filled to overflowing with text and art) made me think about the book-making behind any print book.

I am not saying every book needs wo be an odd shape or to use old type and hundreds of images to be exceptional. In fact I am not saying books need any illustration at all. Rather my point is that a book becomes valuable, exceptional, because of the layers, the depth, the craft we bring to it. I felt that, too, even just looking at Sid Fleischman’s biography of Mark Twain,

Of course all of these books may eventually appear on e-readers — which, by then, will be able to handle color and odd formats. But I am not sure that will be the best use of the medium. Movies are not filmed plays — movies needed to find their own vocabulary, their own syntax for dealing with space and time that was different from theater. I wonder if some of the unconscious appeal of Hugo Cabret is that it is about early film, that moment of transitions from machines and puppets to filmed motion. And we now are in early digital expression, and so we feel some echo to that time of weirdness, and experiment, that was the early age of cinema. Because I think that when e-readers get really good, we will develop new forms of expression that take advantage of their strengths, that are not books without paper, but rather digital expressions that flow and move, as film flows and moves. 

In other words, I suspect e-readers are not another storage device for text, but rather the opportunity for new kinds of narrative and expression. Leaving books, regular old difficult expensive books, to be what they are.

What do you think?


  1. DEBRA HANSON says:

    I think you are right on a couple of points. In time, the new e-readers will evolve to be something different, not just a substitution for a printed book. There is something wonderful about picking up a printed book – feeling it’s weight, the texture of the pages, looking at the illustrations and photographs that accompany the text – and experiencing the physical book as well as the story. Even my middle school students, those millenials who are growing up digital, have an affinity for paperback books they can cram into a pocket or backpack and pull out at any time. Interesting that you mentioned Hugo Cabret, one of my favorite books… my students won’t even consider reading that book “because it’s too big” until I show them the illustrations and how much of the story is told in pictures. Then they get excited about it. I don’t think that book would have the same appeal on a kindle.

  2. Karen McWilliams says:

    Marc! On BookTV last Saturday I saw your discussion of your latest book, RACE, with a wonderful group of 8th and 9th graders. I was mesmerized by the way you kept those very bright and articulate kids engaged in a thoughtful discussion of race and prejudice throughout history. I am a former teacher and school librarian who currently reviews books and writes children and YA books as well as magazine articles. When I was in the classroom, I tried to hold the interest of my kids any way I could and hopefully like you do! I was so proud of the kids in your BookTV audience who were such deep thinkers and articulate speakers. Immediately after the program I looked on the BookTV schedule to see when it would be rerun, so I could encourage my friends to watch. Your segment was not rerun last weekend, so I wrote BookTV an e-mail encouraging them to rerun the program as often as possible. Hopefully a lot of teachers and school librarians would watch and change their methods of teaching to an interactive one like yours. I’m looking forward to seeing more of you on BookTV! K.J. McWilliams

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    Thanks to Debra for news from middle school, and K.J. for the nice words. They rerun that show every so often, but not on any particular schedule. The kids were terrific.