STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Many people who read a lot have gotten used to reading on screens: on laptops, on tablets, e-readers, lying in bed, flipping your thumb across the screen of the phone. Some people say they prefer that to the experience of reading a heavy, awkward print version of a book.
But every now and then a book comes along that just seems to insist on being physical; something about just can't be transferred to the screen. NPR's Lynn Neary came across such a book among the many that pile up on her desk every day.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: It showed up in a big box of children's books, all brightly colored, and many beautifully illustrated. But this one stood out. To begin with, this was a new version of "The Odyssey" aimed at kids eight and up. But the artwork seemed sophisticated for a children's book. These were not your standard depictions of gods and goddesses with chiseled features in flowing gowns.
The images were stylized and a little edgy, multi-layered and richly colored. It seemed like a book that might appeal to adults as well as children, a perfect book perhaps to read with a child. Would a book like this, I wondered, ever make sense as an e-book?
KAREN LOTZ: We feel that the book is a nearly perfect technology as it is, and that's just why it's been around for so long.
NEARY: Karen Lotz is president and publisher of Candlewick Press, which published "The Odyssey" in this country. Candlewick specializes in children's books, and like all publishing companies, now it releases books in both electronic and traditional book form. But, Lotz says, some books - "The Odyssey" is one of them - seem destined for print. She says that decision is made at the beginning of the process.
LOTZ: If you're thinking about a book in its early stages, you're almost always imagining what it's going to be like and what it's going to feel like. And I think we're coming into a time where we as publishers do do that digitally as well, we think about something in a digital form. But if it's going to insist on being physical, it means it's going to be lavish, beautiful, tactile, something to linger over.
NEARY: Lotz says at Candlewick they strive to make every book beautiful, but a few fall into a category they think of as their specials line. They are books that might make good gifts or that they imagine will have a long life on someone's library shelf. A team of editors, art directors and designers lavish attention on these books.
LOTZ: We're all obsessed, actually, with books, with paper, with paper quality. We've gone so far on certain of our titles to invent colors that never existed before. And that's the type of detail that we're into. And we love working with the artist and figuring out what their dream would be of the ideal form, and that kind of collaboration is incredibly exciting.
NEARY: The artist behind the "The Odyssey" is Neil Packer, who has also illustrated collectors' editions of some well-known novels, including "Catch-22" and "One Hundred Years of Solitude." Packer says he began working on "The Odyssey" six years ago, well before most people had ever heard of e-books.
NEIL PACKER: It was very much conceived, obviously, as a tactile and physical thing. You know, I work pigments on paper, and that's how the thing starts, and that's probably how they are best represented. For me, I like the tactility of a book and the fact that one can have it as on object of beauty, almost an ornament.
NEARY: Packer says he would be interested in exploring what he could with digital technology, but he believes if a book is going to viewed on the screen, the artwork needs to be conceived that way. He says transferring artwork from the pages of a book like "The Odyssey" to an electronic device doesn't really work.
PACKER: I don't think sort of turning it into an electronic book would actually do anything to it. It wouldn't bring anything to it. The problem is, with picture books, when you put them on a screen, they sit there rather awkwardly. They don't actually do anything. And I think the temptation for publishers is then to often add animations to them and open up discussion forums and that sort of thing, and it's - again, it doesn't, it doesn't take them anywhere.
NEARY: Of course, illustrations alone do not make a book, especially "The Odyssey."
GILLIAN CROSS: The book was conceived as a whole, words and pictures together, they're not separable.
NEARY: Gillian Cross wrote this version of "The Odyssey." She views the book as a stepping stone, a way in for young people who are likely to read the original when they get older. Cross says she can't imagine this "Odyssey" in e-book form.
CROSS: I have known all along it would be impossible for it to be an e-book with the current state of the technology. There's no way that the technology could cope with what the pictures are, with their richness and their vitality.
NEARY: Cross has nothing but admiration for Packer's artwork, but she does disagree with him one point. The beauty of a book is one reason to treasure it, Cross says, but she also thinks a book should be viewed as more than a work of art that sits on a shelf. If it's regarded as nothing more than an ornament, she worries it will be marginalized, and readers of the future will never understand all that a physical book offers.
CROSS: With anything digital, even upon your e-reader, there will be another book or on the Internet there will be another link you can click on. The fact that a printed book invites you to close it and that it has been specially designed so that the shape of this book might be unique - the shape of "The Odyssey" is quite interesting, isn't it, and the weight of it in your hands. All these things, I think, have value in that they invite you to reflect on what's inside the book.
NEARY: Not all books are the same. Some, like encyclopedias and paperbacks we pick up while travelling, navigate easily to the screen. But some books hold a special place in our hearts. Often, says Karen Lotz, they are the books we first encountered as children.
LOTZ: People tend to remember the books that they had when they were children as physical objects. They remember what the book felt like in their hand, where it sat in their room. They take it under the covers at night, they take it outside to read under a tree. It's a very precious object. It gets some power over us as we read it. It sort becomes part of us, and we become part of it in a very interesting way.
NEARY: The technology of e-books is still developing, says Lotz. Eventually it may be possible to reproduce visually rich, highly designed books onto a screen in a way that is as satisfying as a physical book. But even when and if that day arrives, Lotz believes there will always be a place for both, and there may also always be books that just don't need to go digital. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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