Friday 3 June 2011

Dash It All

All over the London Underground at the moment there's a poster advertising Kindle by teasing us with the first page of Ordinary Thunderstorms, a thriller by William Boyd. No doubt it's intended to make us all think, 'I say - what a perfectly spiffing new way to read a book! I must buy one right now'... On me, however, it has rather the opposite effect, confirming my prejudice against e-books. It's not so much the content of this sample page - though the chances of my reading a William Boyd thriller about a climatologist called Adam Kindred are slim indeed - but rather the look of it, to be precise the punctuation. Here's how the first sentence begins:
'Let us start with the river-all things begin there...'
Yes, where a fine airy dash should be, there's a meagre hyphen linking two words as if they were indeed hyphenated. The first time I saw it, I actually had to read the sentence twice to make sense of it; with dashes it would have been crystal clear. The use of unspaced hyphens for dashes fuddles the meaning as well as producing ugly airless text. Is this strange mispunctuation universal on Kindle I wonder? If so, I can't imagine what it would be like to read, say, Keats's letters, or Laurence Sterne's novels. Perhaps a Kindle reader could enlighten me...


  1. I read that advert on the tube last weekend, and it also had the effect of making me want to never read another word of William Boyd, ever, ever again. That excerpt was just absolutely dire, I think it was supposed to seem a bit 'deep' and 'cultured'...No wonder his books clog up my local oxfam's shelves

  2. Yes indeed - and a strong whiff of 'Creative Writing' about it too - that present-tense faux urgency, 'drawing the reader in' etc. No thank you... The book I'm reading at the moment - W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz - begins thus: 'In the second half of the 1960s I travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks...' That's more like it! Incidentally, I don't think there's a single dash in the whole book - perhaps in the whole of Sebald?

  3. I love the paper book and that will never change, and I can't envisage ever wanting a Kindle to use when away from home, but I have downloaded the free Kindle reading application from Amazon UK. The text is very easy and comfortable to read on a full-screen laptop. When used with free, out of copyright, content from Project Gutenburg, it strikes me as a wonderful resource. I downloaded it to gain access to obscure (to me) Chesterton and Jerome. The faults you refer to are there, but as a completely free means of access to some wonderful stuff, it is superb.

  4. I love books. I collect vintage and antiquarian books - I have over 10,000 - for a shop I hope to open. But I also love my Kindle. Browsing the Top 100 free e-books on Amazon is great fun. And I love the instant nature of it. For me, at least, there are books I would rather not actually have, but am happy to read.

    There are definitely the occasional composition problems. But they don't really distract.

  5. Noreen Malone says that there's a "Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash: Modern prose doesn't need any more interruptions—seriously":

  6. If there's a punctuation mistake, that's not because the Kindle displays the punctuation incorrectly, but because the text has been "transposed" (or whatever the word may be, assuming it's been invented) incorrectly to the digital format used by the Kindle.

    Unfortunately, these (and other typos) seem to be relatively common in Kindle versions of books, especially the free ones available to download from Amazon. I suspect it's more to do with the "volunteers" and/or slave labourers that convert the text to a digital format.

    As publishers become more and more au fait with Ebooks, expect the errors to decrease to below the level of print copies - it's much easier to check for spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors in a digital document.

    Still, it's a little embarrassing that they couldn't get a sample page on an advert right, and the hyphen thing would bug me too.

    Makes it sound like the start of Finnegans Wake. By no means a bad thing, but possibly a bit too much for your average thriller reader.

  7. I was always against these eReaders until I bought one -- a Sony eReader which has the great advantage over the Kindle of being an open format reader which doesn't demand that I get my books from Amazon.

    It's a pleasure to read and to use. I can carry it everywhere. I love the ease with which I can look up obscure words in its dictionary and write notes as I read. But more importantly: I can read books that I'd never otherwise find. Project Gutenberg is full of books that would never be stocked in bookshops which, frankly, had begun to bore me rigid with the same stock from town to town, city to city. In fact, most of the books have been out of print for decades.

    It's commendable that you defend the printed book, Nige. I really was the world's biggest cynic. But eReaders have a pleasure of their own which is hard to describe until you use one for a little time. And in these austere times, it's also helping to save me a fortune!

  8. That first sentence drives me nuts as it surely contradicts itself. To continue your quotation (from memory so it might not be perfectly accurate):

    "...and it will probably end there too, no doubt."

    "...probably..."? " doubt"? So which is it to be?

    First sentence too! How many editor-type people have now read this solecism and let it pass I wonder? Gawd.

  9. All fascinating stuff - ereaders suddenly sound a lot more appealing than I thought, tho I'm unlikely to pick up the habit for a while yet, as I couldn't face the thought of looking at any kind of screen any longer than I already do - I need paper, if only for my eyes! Thanks for the link Dave - how could I have forgotten - Emily - Dickinson - ? And now I'm suddenly noticing dashes in Sebald - sparingly used, but they're there...

  10. The point of an eReader, Nige, is that they don't have a screen. The technology of this 'electronic paper' isn't the same as a laptop screen. It's not illuminated from the back and there's no flicker. In fact, it doesn't consume power, or only does so when changing.

    Honestly, it's just like reading paper (far better than newspaper print, but perhaps not as good as the very finest printed page). It is very easy on the eyes. In fact, one the benefits is that you can change the text size to make it easier to read and my reader also has a light which allows me to read when the lighting is poor.

    I stopped thinking of them as a challenge to traditional books and began to think of them as a great way to encourage more literacy in our culture. You should nip into Waterstones and ask for a demo. ;)

  11. 'Electronic paper' - this is getting weird... But surely it's still a screen? Or maybe it's an 'electronic page'? The older I get, the less of the world I understand...

  12. I know. They are very strange devices to explain. It's only a screen in the sense that it's a rectangle that you look at. The things that traditionally make screens painful to use for long hours aren't there. There's no subliminal refresh. No glare. The screen is matt, so you can read it even in strong sunlight -- impossible with laptops, iPads etc. In fact, like a book, you do need good light to read from it. To the eyes, it feels exactly like reading from paper.

    I share your distrust of technology but my eReader has given me something I've never had before: access to out-of-print books I can never find in stores. If you need convincing, take a look at Gutenberg.

  13. And of course an eReader is ideal (though not essential) for reading Blogmanship.

  14. Many Jerome K Jerome books are free, including Three Men in a Boat. I paid $0.99 for his combined works.

    e-Ink is basically a system in which each pixel is like a (very small) piece of paper, one side white and one side black. It doesn't take any energy to keep them in either state, in effect they're just lying there. It only takes energy to flip them.

  15. Forgot to add that old books are particularly succeptible to typos in Kindle (and any ebook) because the conversion is done by computer reader without human proofreading.

    That doesn't explain Ordinary Thunderstorms, though, because in the print edition the dashes are clearly dashes.

    (Apparently, Boyd really loves dashes -- as do I.)