Atoms and Words

by Neil Fein
Publishers spend a lot of time on book covers and page design, to make books professional-looking and attractive. E-books bypass all of this: There’s a cover page, but it’s easily dismissed when we turn the page. All e-books look more or less the same, and the words have to stand on their own.

The selling points of an e-book are the content, the sample chapter, and the online reviews. With paper books, all that design work is apparent on the cover when we see it on a bookstore shelf, and also each time we pick the book up at home.

At heart, a book is a powerfully simple object: A set of covers holding a sheaf of words. An e-reader, with its simple, consistent appearance, only increases the elegant simplicity the book concept: Words that appear in a window in my lap, framed by glass and black plastic. It’s a designer’s nightmare, devoid of font and kerning choices, that flashy cover art relegated to a single page.

I just finished reading Solaris, in a new translation of this seminal work. Stanislaw Lem’s world of a living planet, a being that reaches into the mind of a troubled researcher, is compelling enough that I was able to see past the many typos I found.

The essential atom of a book is the word. An e-book is where those units of meaning are stripped bare: The single e-page of cover art is easily dismissed with a button, or the swipe of a finger on a touchscreen. All I see in an e-book is its words.

I take hardcover books more seriously than paperbacks–they remind me of library books; and in my head, paperback books are all silly pulp novels. I’ve only read two books on an e-reader so far; but I like reading on a Kindle. Seeing just the words is freeing, and I have no reader baggage attached to the plastic and glass window in my lap. It remains to be seen if I’ll develop shallow associations to the e-book format.

Actually, I may have one: Reading on a screen was putting me in “work” mode for a while: For the first few chapters of Solaris, I started making notes on the book’s errors, helpfully thinking I’d send then to the publisher. I quickly realized that this was slowing down my reading and turning the narrative into a typo hunt.

So I slowed down and put the book aside for a couple of weeks.

When I resumed reading, I was on a camping trip. Lying in my tent, the book seemed to be made of pure words, my tablet a window into a planet of description, conversation, and metaphor. So I am able to turn off “work mode” when reading on a screen, and resist the urge to read the book like I was reading a manuscript for a client. I had spent several weeks on the first half of that book, but I finished the rest just a couple of days later.

While there are still problems with the e-book format–the high price of mainstream e-books being the main issue–I love the format.

Reading the essence of a book is a great way to experience it.


Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He also plays acoustic guitar in the bands Baroque & Hungry, and The Trouvères.

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5 Comments to “Atoms and Words”

  1. I love this. I love the idea of reading the essence of a book. My Fransi Weinstein Et Al blog has no visuals. I purposely picked a template that was just text. My reasoning was, I’m a writer. I’m supposed to be able to create pictures with words. So I decided that my words would provide the only ‘pictures’ on that blog. I guess we’re both saying the same thing, in different ways.

    • I’ve actually read that blog posts with pictures get more hits, so I started adding them when I have one (or can easily take one, as in this case.) That way, when folks pass around a link on Facebook or Google plus or wherever, there’s a nice preview picture.

      • Valid point. I use some photos in my new blog — not for the reasons you just stated, which do make perfect sense. I can’t claim to be including visuals this time for a strategic reason, though. Just wanted the 2 blogs to look different. And I guess I like the simplicity of using one shot almost as an icon — demonstrating the idea behind the post.

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