By Ink Alone: The new type of movable ink
by Matt Stevens
*Editor’s Note: This was originally written almost two years ago, and is also a preview into our past lives BEFORE the Kindle and Nook and other e-readers became so popular that even now my 87-year old grandmother has one.
This will be a strange book review. Because I won’t talk much about the book. I didn’t finish the book, but I’m still going to give it four stars.
Belknap Press: 2009
Peter H. Wilson’s tale of the Thirty Years War is stupendous in its detail, length and size. I didn’t finish it. I have decided after trudging through 30-40 pages a week for three months that I have other books I want to read. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy this. Its a great book. But a reader has to want to know the details of this war that ravaged across Germany, Poland, Bohemia (now Czech Republic) and with interesting side bit additions by the Dutch, Spanish and French.
Wilson starts his story with all the Protestant anger that led up to the Second Defenestration of Prague, through Swedish intervention when Gustavus Adolphus decided to go Empire Building, Pillaging and other non-socially accepted activities in the German Kingdoms (such as defending Protestants). I quit reading just after the death of Gustavus.
The book is extremely well written, Wilson jumps around from the different major actors such as General Wallenstein, Gustavus, Gustavus’s generals, and the Emperor but we do not loose the narrative or the importance of the individual actors on the scenes. If anyone is interested in this time frame, I heartily recommend the book!
Four out of Five Melons.
However, reading through this book, I realized that this type of book is what the new e-readers were designed for. Wilson’s book is exhaustively long (when I took it in my car, I lost a couple mpg) checking in at 851 pages, before Wilson’s extensive notes and indices. However, to tell the story in a timeline fashion, this happened, then this happened, then this happened, the book didn’t need to be this long. Because Wilson delves into the characters, the emotions and information that each had at their points of decisions, the different wants and desires of the generals and rulers, the book balloons in size. I want to state that I’m not criticising Wilson here; to deliver a book that tells the story of the Thirty Years War in a single volume is an enormous task and I think he succeeds.
But all that said, no book will ever be written like this ever again. This is a book/topic that seems to be designed for a mass audience. However, many of the characters, even the major ones are not well known in western culture: Johann Georg, Wallenstein, the various electors of the German states and even Gustavus. Moreover, even though this book is ridiculously thick, one cannot truly get to the personal level of the different principalities, get to know the advisors that are pulling the strings for the Emperor or the General or for Gustavus.
This topic is taylor-made for e-reader. The author can write a timeline account of the details and can branch off on to random tangents that a reader can choose or not choose to read. For example, no battle throughout the story gets more than two pages. When I read biographies of Alexander the Great, the details in explaining the importance of the battles and how Alexander won were amazing. Because the actual fighting is important in the scheme of events, I understand Wilson’s desire to skip over them (often he seems to write “the imperialists had the woods to their back, the river to their right, Gustavus attacked from their left, while his calvary led a charge from over the river, the cannons were captured but most of the baggage escape to the city). And the battles are just one example where Wilson could dive into the history and depth of a topic.
I think the future of e-readers will be like wikipedia, but much more scholarly, accurate and well written. And we’ll have access to such a wider variety of sources and information that we can even imagine now. As Wilson discusses in his intro, to write this book, you have to be a master of 14 languages in order to track the events of history and of the scholarship in the past 400 years.
Through e-readers, books will much more be a variety of authors, chiming in with their area of expertise while one editor gathers all the themes together and tells the over arching narrative. This style will allow more scholarly books to be published quicker and cheaper and allow historians, writers, biographers and all other sort of non-fiction writers to write more often and produce better work.
Imagine if in this book, instead of Wilson having to pull all the information together, he could pull in a military historian to write about the changes in military doctrine, troop alignment and about the significant battles. Instead of having to spend years on his own, researching the propaganda the Swedish used in Germany, and the differences in the propaganda served at Catholic and Protestant states and that propaganda sent back to Sweden; imagine if Wilson could have outsourced that so we could get a much more coherent structure of the differences in propaganda and Wilson could focus on his narrative.
Think of this way: Wilson tells us of a city that is scared of being razed as Gustavus advances upon it because of his propaganda storm. At this point, there is a link* in the text to another article (short book) that details the various propaganda used by Gustavus throughout the war, and also how that worked to changed minds across the German territory and ensured that Sweden continued to send him soldiers and funds. Not only would the narrative be enhanced because Wilson would not have to spend time on this feature, but our knowledge as readers would grow and we would be provided greater choice as we could choose or not to choose to read this aside about propaganda.
*Now think if there was also a link right there to the story of the city and the different sides they fought on, the Protestant and Catholic leaders, their machinations with France and Denmark. Because Wilson simply doesn’t have the space (or the time to get that indepth) we can’t see it in a single volume. But because e-readers have no space limits, this will become normal.
In the future, more books will be written like this, as a series of linked articles with an over-arching theme that ties them together. In the end, this actually may lead to less historians and writers writing their own books – because each historian with a slightly different perspective on Martin Luther or Napolean won’t have to write their own book retelling the history. They’ll each contribute pieces to generating greater knowledge.