I was at my usual comix retail establishment, engaged in one of our usual high-level cultural debates, when the talk inevitably turned to the subject of Burt Reynolds’ late oeuvre. We were exploring the fascinating dichotomy between his Hairpiece movies (which are usually very bad) and his No Hairpiece movies or (which are usually good or even very good).
We had already dispensed with “Boogie Nights,” agreeing that for the purposes of our discussion, a hairpiece which was age-appropriate in both color and hairline would be regarded as a “No Hairpiece” production.
“He was pretty good in that movie he was in about ten years ago,” someone said. “He’s a retired burglar, and he starts teaching this young crook…damn, I can’t think of the title…”
Instinctively I reached for my iPhone and prepared to launch IMDB. But before I’d thumbed the button to wake the screen, Steve (the store’s proprietor) had fished a copy of the Leonard Maltin Film Guide from behind the counter and began flipping through it:
This book is not unfamiliar to me. I used to keep current with all of the master movie reference books: your Roger Ebert guide and your Halliwell guide and your Psychotronic guide, et al. I bought a fresh copy every time any of these were updated and kept them on the reference shelf near my desk, to handle just this sort of question, or to serve me with anywhere from ten minutes to three hours of nonproductive distraction from whatever it is I was meant to be doing.
(Yes, kids, times were hard before the Internet.)
But bloody hell! It’s been years since I’ve even touched a book like that. I grew up with them, and even I regarded this old Maltin guide with a certain mixture of fascination and disbelief.
I realized that one day, I will need to explain the following things to my (as-yet hypothetical) children about what books were like, back when the things were made from mashed-up tree pulp instead of mashed-up electrons:
1) If a reference book attempted to be comprehensive in any way, and it was essential that the information be presented in any kind of a logical, linear order, then you couldn’t update the book without republishing its entire contents. If it was an annual book — like an almanac — all existing unsold copies had to be scrapped when the new edition was released. They almost immediately became unsalable.
2) Why not simply release a slim addendum? Because the information needed to be presented in a logical, linear order: searching had to be done by hand. Many people would cling to the same dictionary editions they’d had since college, simply because they were so familiar with it that if they needed to look up a word like “preternatural” they could instinctively open it to almost the right page. Even so, lots of page-flipping and scrutinizing was necessary.
3) The cost of producing the book was directly related to how many pages needed to be printed. So if a book with lots and lots of content was being prepared for mass-market sale, steps needed to be taken to control the page count. Simetimes, drastic measures were necessary, like tiny, tiny printing and tissue-thin paper.
4) If a book needed to contain more content, the publisher couldn’t simply make the book’s “footprint” bigger. They had to pack neatly into shipping boxes of a certain size, and when they arrived at the bookstores, they needed to be stocked on shelves of a certain size. So usually, the only solution was to simply add more pages.
All of these factors sometimes led to the sort of item you see in that photo: a practically a solid cube of paper. If that book were any thicker, it’d roll away from you when you dropped it.
I remember a multi-page magazine ad that Microsoft took out some ten years ago when they launched their Microsoft Reader format. A timeline ran across the bottom of the ad, dictating how the future of publishing was definitely going to go, now that they’d crashed this Connecticut-sized meteor into the middle of the dinosaur habitat. Oh, Microsoft wasn’t too terribly confident. According to the timeline, it wasn’t going to be until 2005 (if I recall correctly) that “Most books are purchased and read electronically; physical books are only printed in special ‘gift’ editions for special occasions.”
We all had a good laugh about that. Even today, electronic distribution of books is mostly like an awkward office party that everybody shows up for but which nobody really participates in. “Your $12 book is a bundle of electrons that you can’t read until you spend $200 more for a whole new gadget” goes down about as well with the general population as “You know that group of toner-huffing morons you work with? Well, once or twice a year you’re expected to socialize with them on your own time. Oh, and your boss and all of your boss’ bosses will be there too, so there’ll be plenty of opportunities to commit career-limiting blunders, both real ones and ones that only exist in other people’s imaginations.”
But although the transition to digital publishing is happening slowly, it’s definitely happening. It’s a fascinating thing to watch. And the technology is the dull part. What’s interesting is the shift in perception.
You know how sometimes you turn off a certain cognitive section of your brain and force yourself to see a word not as a piece of language with meaning, but as a sequence of black shapes and white spaces? It’s like you’re seeing that image for the very first time and suddenly “bird” seems like a very odd collection of squiggles.
I’ve been buying all of my in-print books electronically for a couple of years now. Physical books aren’t weird to me yet. But damn, that old copy of the Maltin guide was a freaky and bizarre object. It’s the first time I looked at a book and didn’t see a container for information. I saw dead wood.
(Oh, incidentally: the movie was 1989’s “Breaking In,” co-starring…hmm. No, the writer and director are the only other names you’d recognize.)