Monday, November 15, 2010

The Un-E-Bookable

I know you occasionally grow weary of my e-scapades, meine Freunde, so I thought I'd break in a brand-new week with something unprecedented on PMN: a post on the un-e-bookable! Specifically, Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel, Tree of Codes.

The Vanity Fair article/interview (linked above) calls the book "a spare, haunting story that appears to hang in negative space" and "very, very cool." Safran Foer created the book by strategically cutting passages out of Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles, meaning the book is die-cut throughout. That also means that, at $40.00, it's probably the most expensive fiction trade paperback on the market now. While "very, very cool," is it forty dollars cool? Or even Amazon's $26.40 cool?

I've seen the book, mes auteurs (more via hook than by crook), and I must say: I'm actually not super impressed. It could be because I saw a much-handled galley whose pages no longer lined up properly, but the story seemed less to me spare and haunting than jumbled and contrived. Yes, I know it's cool to hate on JSF, but believe me, I'm not hating—I loved Everything is Illuminated and was charmed by Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I just think this book is less a testament to good writing (or, I suppose, editing) than it is to how confident publishers are in the JSF brand.

Then again, like I said, it's possible the copy I had wasn't in the best shape. I'll browse at a certain local indie and, if sufficiently impressed, will use my "one free paperback" coupon to the fullest.

To be clear: I'm glad to see a new book (by a major author) that takes full advantage of its physical existence, and un-e-bookable titles like this one help—at least, for the foreseeable future—to guarantee the relevance of the printed page for years to come. To quote the man himself:

I started thinking about what books look like, what they will look like, how the form of the book is changing very quickly. If we don’t give it a lot of thought, it won’t be for the better. There is an alternative to e-books. And I just love the physicality of books.

I do agree; there is an alternative to e-books, and this "book-as-sculptural objec[t]" (again quoting the article) is one of them. Whether it will be popular enough to maintain interest in physical books is debatable, and again quoting Safran Foer (in response to "In this increasingly digital age, do you see a project like this... as one way to preserve the printed page?"):

Not really. These decisions are going to be democratic. This book is simply not going to find a big audience. It’s naïve to think it would. I’m not really interested in resisting what’s going on, even though I have strong ideas about what a good book is. It’s possible to make things that aren’t just money-makers. Something wonderful for its own sake.

Safran Foer is right: this book won't find a big audience (relative to his usual crowd), and were it coming from any other author, it would be virtually unsalable (although some would argue it's virtually unsalable as-is! Get it? Oh man, I crack me up). Again, however, I agree that there are going to be alternatives to e-books in the future, and while the democratic force of the Reading Public will push the e-format more and more forcefully as time goes on, I'm convinced there will always be a place in the market for books as objets d'art.


  1. I think you have already stated what the reality of all this hoop-la is about. We now have hard cover, mass market, paperpack and e-pub.

    For the next few years at least, it will be a combo of "all of the above."

  2. Coincidentally, this is what's happening in Canadian literary circles this week.

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  4. I guess I need to go see a copy, because this just seems...gimmicky to me. It sounds cool as an art project, but I have to wonder if it really enhances the story in any way. Would people have thought the story good if it were just presented as plain text? People who aren't fanatics about the author, defending everything he does (i.e. in love with the brand)? And as he himself says, this one book alone isn't going to stop the e-book conversion. Books in multiple formats will be around for a while yet, and perhaps books like this won't get an e-version, but most still will. Most are just text, and the need for a physical object isn't there in the same way. (That is not to say that people don't have a preference for physical books based on certain factors, such as the feel, taking into the tub, eye strain from reading a screen, etc. But words are words are words, whether they are printed on paper or displayed on a screen.)

  5. Wait a minute: he cut passages out of "Street of Crocodiles?" So this is somebody else's work that he's made into a kind of sculptural objet d'art? Very Marcel Duchamps. OK, that's cool, but is it writing? This is what I get for fooling around on the Internet instead of keeping caught up on my Book Reviews and magazines. OK, going to find out some more about this now...

  6. The Un-e-bookable has been on my mind for awhile now. I collect and adore pop-up books. I have yet to see an e-book provide the fun and satisfaction in the same way that things like Robert Sabuda books or the Ology series does.

  7. Sorry Mr. Foer. I do love your previous works, but this seems incredibly derivative of work done by the Oulipo group forty years ago. I am thinking of Queneau's Cent mille milliards de poèmes specifically (a book of ten sonnets with interchangeable lines that can be flipped back and forth individually), but the whole group in general for the text-generated-from-text concept.