Oliver Sacks has a fabulous essay at the back of yesterday’s New York Times Book Review called “Reading the Fine Print.” Everyone who reads needs to check it out. Dr. Sacks, one of this world’s most important thinkers about human consciousness (his most recent book, Hallucinations, is just the tip of the iceberg), bemoans in his essay the demise of large-print books. He acknowledges the end of large-print has come about because e-Books can provide any size type a reader desires, but that’s not good enough for him. Sacks doesn’t want a sterile electronic reading experience, he wants “books with heft, with a bookish smell, as books have had for the last 550 years, a book that I can slip into my pocket or keep with its fellows on my bookshelves where my eye might alight on it at unexpected times.”
The impetus for this essay is that Sacks, who has impaired vision, wants to experience his new book in large-print. He says he is most comfortable reading in the bathtub or in bed. But he was told that large-print is not “necessary” anymore. So he is forced to read his book in paper form using a magnifying glass.
Dr. Sacks goes on to talke about the V.W.F.A. (visual word form area) and the complex cognitive processes that reading requires. In his unbelievably erudite style, he offers two case studies of brain damaged reader/writers who relearned their crafts through quite abnormal techniques. He also points out that audio books are not the same as reading because they’re dependent on someone else’s control. The listener doesn’t have the luxury of skipping around or mulling over a specific line or word. There’s a lot more food for thought in this short piece as well. Read it when you’re done here…really!
What I find most interesting about this essay is that it comes at the end of one of the most revolutionary years in publishing history. Dr. Sacks is such a prolific, successful author. His thoughts run deep in our mainstream now. But he must confront the new world of publishing like all the rest of us. Any writer who wants to see their book in large-print can do so very easily by creating a large font version and having it printed out by any number of print-on-demand houses. In fact, new POD machines like the Espresso Book Machine should be able to do this for any reader as well.
What this essay points to as well is something that any writer who signs with a traditional publisher needs to keep in mind: when you assign publication rights to someone else, they aren’t necessarily going to be thinking with the new toolbox open on the floor. Yet.
We often read about the fact that there are no rules in the publishing world anymore and that this is a new and wide open frontier. That’s actually not true. The old rules, especially the rule of “lack of vision,” are all still there. They’re just in conflict with a system that is open to creative and inspired new ways of doing things that no one ever thought of before. That’s what indie writers are all about. In fact, if the publishing industry has any sense it will figure out how to keep the toolbox open for indies so that we can continue to push the envelope and make sure the book world optimizes itself the way it needs to in every way possible.
I’m hoping someone at the agency that represents Mr. Sacks, or even at his publishing house (Knopf), is sharp enough to help him resolve his dilemma. The Times essay page online doesn’t offer a comments opportunity or I’d suggest this there. All of us aging Boomers are going to have to deal with this issue eventually (I already do to a certain extent). Let’s hope someone gets a large-print copy of Hallucinations set up through a POD system soon so that Oliver Sacks can enjoy his reading experience in the bath the way he deserves.