The curse of old technology

The curse of old technology

I write this on my 27-inch Apple iMac, which two years ago was a top of the line computer, but I bought it last year as a refurbished model. I hope it will last as long as the seven-years service my previous computer, a Mac Pro, offered. Acting as a third screen (because I have a second monitor already attached to the iMac) is my iPad Air 2, which less than a year ago was top of the line, now being supplanted by the iPad Pro.

All this computing power, however, is powerless to overcome the obstacles thrown up the Kindle DX, the e-reader Amazon introduced in 2009. Let me explain: I’m in the final stages of producing my latest book, Narrowboating for Beginners, which I wrote about last time. In three months, I have gone from conception to writing to creating all the graphics to designing the book in InDesign to creating the cover in Illustrator. Now I’m creating the epub and preparing to convert the book into Kindle format. Once that’s done, I can order a proof of the book and officially publish.

Now this is hardly a Mansfield Park length book. I haven’t even bothered with a word count, but it’s about 150 pages (counting title, copyright, dedication, table of contents, chapters and glossary pages) as a 5.5″-by-8.5″ trade paperback with generous margins. Much of the space is taken up by the QR codes a reader can scan with a smartphone or tablet to jump to online content. There are lots of graphics that take up nearly the whole page and the typeface is pretty large (11.5 pt Garamond body copy on 13pt leading).

Still, I’m pretty amazed at how quickly I’ve accomplished this and further amazed at all the computer programs involved in its production, the amount of research I was able to do online, and the convenience of online publishing services like Amazon CreateSpace. Imagine if Jane Austen had been able to publish her books through an on-demand printing service. Maybe we would have more of her books to read. The marvels of technology really have made it possible to publish in an incredibly short time, although I will be the first to admit quality does suffer in this rush.

But back to that Kindle DX. It’s the thorn in my side as I try to create the Kindle Format 6 version of the electronic version of my book and has put the kibosh on forward progress. It’s the earliest Kindle model that the Kindle Previewer (a software emulator that Amazon provides to mimic various Kindle models and also converts html, Word and epub documents to a universal Kindle format) emulates. The original first- and second-generation Kindles are left to fend for themselves although I think a kf6 document will still work on those devices. The emulator is essential for testing because most people don’t have every flavor of Kindle device, which now includes the original Kindle, the Kindle DX, the Kindle Touch (which evolved into the Kindle Paperwhite), the Kindle Keyboard, the three versions of the Kindle Fire and most recently the Kindle Voyage. And all these models have gone through several generations. And all this since 2007, when the original Kindle went on sale (a Forbes article estimated 43.7 million Kindles had been sold from 2007 to 2013).*

The majority of the Kindle readers since the Kindle DX, however, can read Kindle Format 8 documents, and that format gives a book designer lots of flexibility. KF8 (I have no idea what happened to kf7) essentially looks like a modern web page with HTML5 and CSS3 support (or at least a subset). The original Kindle format of the Kindle DX, however, can only create web pages like you might have seen in the late 1990s when Netscape Navigator was realistically the only web browser in use.

The limitations of kf6 don’t much matter when formatting a novel. Straight text doesn’t require a lot of design, but my latest book has many photos and drawings. In the paperback version, text wraps around pictures and I use lots of icons to draw readers to important information. Photos and callouts are placed just so, so that page breaks don’t interfere with copy flow. In an ebook, however, page breaks constantly change when the reader changes the size of the reading font or switches from portrait to landscape or single-column to two-column format.

KF6, however, can’t wrap text around pictures. You’re limited to a single font. Centering an image is nearly impossible. And as far as I can tell, there’s no way to detect when the device is held landscape or portrait, meaning I can’t adjust a tall picture when the device is horizontal or a wide picture when the device is held vertical. And forget trying to keep a cutline with the picture. The only way to accomplish that is to make the cutline part of the picture, which means the cutline font won’t increase or reduce when the user enlarges or reduces the screen font.

I’m in a pitiable state. My dog looks up in alarm at my little moans while I try to validate the epub or diagnose some cryptic KindleGen error message. I talk to my computer, hoping it will explain to me why I can adjust the width of a picture but not its height. I swear at those technologically backward ignoramuses who still cling to their ancient Kindle DXs, unaware of how much their reliance on ancient technology affects me.

There are few times when I envy the world in which Jane Austen lived. I would hate to be a penniless spinster with no hope of advancement when a cut or scrape could kill me or when an as yet unnamed disease might kill me, even though a simple modern-day steroid could save me.

But the thought of contentedly scratching away at a little piece of ivory right now is extremely appealing—until I want to undo.

* A Kindle book designer also has to consider the Kindle app that will work on desktop computers, tablets and smartphones. The app has its own limitations.

All this talk of technology makes me consider the tools Jane Austen employed and whether she was ever saddled with outdated technology. Her tools were simple, of course, quill pen, ink, her little bits of ivory (the paper on which she wrote), the writing desk that was a present from her father, and the table on which she kept the writing desk.

That’s not a lot compared to a modern-day author’s tools of the trade. I believe Austen would have cut her own quill pen nib with a penknife and perhaps had she a metal pen nib she would have been more productive, but I think that metal nibs only came into common use after Austen’s death. I have to assume that trimming a pen, however, was such a common task that its impact on her time was negligible. I also doubt she would have made much more progress with store-bought inks. Her sister-in-law’s recipe for gall (or gaul) ink could probably have been made in sufficient quantities for Austen’s needs. (Better inks might make conserving her manuscripts an easier task for modern-day Austen scholars.)

I don’t know whether Austen had a dictionary in her reference library, which while her father was alive might have been one of the 500 volumes he had collected. Doctor Johnson’s dictionary came out in the 1750s. Frankly I don’t know whether a dictionary would have helped or hindered her creative output. I spend way too much time looking things up rather than actual writing. I think she must have had access to atlases and maps because of her often admired attention to detail concerning travel times and routes.

Her writing desk (essentially a box with an angled cut, the two halves joined by a hinge) certainly qualifies as a piece of technology. Whether she ever longed for a larger writing desk or with more compartments or whether she would have been more productive with a better desk I can’t guess. I have to think the sentimental attachment would have outweighed any practical considerations. Pictures of the desk have always impressed me with how clever an object it is.

Pictures of her writing table at Chawton Cottage, however, have always baffled me. For one thing, I doubt she would have placed her writing desk on top of the table, for it would have been larger than the table. The table top is too small for anything other than the one piece of paper on which she was writing, giving rise either to the image of an extremely organized Austen with the other pages of the manuscript in a box next to table—or an image of a disorganized Austen with the other pages scattered on the floor. (The latter goes against the rather twee story of Austen hiding her work whenever someone opened the squeaking door.)

I have sometimes wondered what would be the best and simplest technology that a time traveler could grant Austen. Obviously a laptop computer would be wasted on her without explaining how to operate it and providing a reliable source of electrical power. You’d also need to supply paper and a printer (and we all know how long a inkjet cartridge lasts).

A manual typewriter would be better choice but again there would be some maintenance and supply issues, although one could easily give her enough paper and typewriter ink spools to keep her productive for a very long time. At least I don’t think she would be burned as a witch for owning a typewriter.

Lower down the technology scale, she could probably really benefit from a lifetime’s supply of Wite-Out® and rubber cement—and in that whole “teach a man to fish” vein she would probably benefit further from being given the formula to produce these brushable products. I think Austen cut and pasted her manuscripts using pins. Think how much easier and neater her work might have been had she these products.

Rubber cement is basically latex and acetone, both known in Austen’s time. Joseph Priestley had even created the first eraser from latex rubber in 1770 and acetone was known as “spirit of Saturn” since the Middle Ages (assuming the Wikipedia articles are correct). I don’t know off-hand the formula for Wite-Out, but I have to assume it would be possible to create some substitute from Regency materials. (Of course there’s always the danger that had Austen had these formulas, she might have become a successful office goods supplier and abandoned writing.)

An even better gift from our time traveler would be a handful of ballpoint pens stolen from the office supplies closest at his laboratory, or a fountain pen with the little lever that sucks ink into a reservoir, although I don’t know whether gall ink might corrode the pen’s mechanism.

But the best gift would probably be a couple of boxes of Ticonderoga No. 2 wood-cased HB pencils with a couple of extra erasers and one of those hand-cranked metal pencil sharpeners. If you think about it, a pencil is higher technology than even a metal-nibbed quill pen. Throw in a couple of those Big Chief tablets or even some of those black-and-white speckled composition books and who knows what other books Austen might have written.

10 Responses to The curse of old technology

  1. Thank you for sharing. I just turned my kindle in to amazon, in exchange for a gift card, as I never used it. I have the nook HD, HD+ and the NOOK by Samsung and all use the kindle app. I understand the limitations of technology as I also have the very first nook which is sufficient for reading, but cannot view pictures…..I can’t part with it, but it is as out of date as your kindle.

    • Wow, Debbie, I never knew Amazon would buyback a Kindle. I should tell my friend Lee. I have my eye on the $49 Kindle Fire so that I would have at least one version of the Kindle to test on, rather than always relying on the emulator.

  2. Fun post! Sorry about all the Kindle formatting issues. I format with Jutoh and they have a “reflowable” book format. Would that be helpful?

    I’m getting such a kick out of this post. On Thursday, mine is about Luddites who hated the new technology of their day! “I swear at those technologically backward ignoramuses who still cling to their ancient Kindle DXs, unaware of how much their reliance on ancient technology affects me.” was particularly funny.

    • Rose, I’m using Dreamweaver/Sigil for the epub and Kindle Previewer/KindleGen for the mobi conversion. I’m nearly bald what with all the hair clutching. My problem is trying to keep the cutline with the picture and there are a lot of pictures. Actually, I’ve already lost that battle. I just put a page-break-before each picture.

      Now the thing that has me scratching my head is why h3s are bigger than h2s even if I don’t specify a font. Back to more hair clutching.

      If I was smart, I’d go for a fixed layout, but I do want people to be able to read the book landscape and portrait.

  3. Oh yes, you’re all very wise, good lighting would really help but that’s one of those sustainable things. A solar powered LED would make sense but even the best rechargeable batteries would give out (as any of us with those solar-powered walkway lights know). It would increase the amount of time she could write and the quality of her light, however, even if only worked during daylight hours. One of the clever ideas from the developing world is to fill 2-liter clear plastic bottles with water and insert them through the roof of thatched huts, but that only works in a dry climate. You don’t want to pierce the thatch of an English house.

    You could pay to have builders install more windows at Chawton Cottage but then you run afoul of the window tax. I can’t remember if the bricked up windows at the cottage were a result of the tax.

    A kerosene lantern with a gas mantle would provide brilliant light but the platinum that goes into the mantle would be pricey. Just regular oil lamps with a proper chimney would be better along with a plentiful supply of whale oil, but my Greenpeace credentials would be ruined. Perhaps a lot of true beeswax candles would be best or one could establish a trust fund that would pay to have candles sent on a regular basis to Austen. If you just gave her a wad of cash, I fear she might spend it on family and friends rather than on herself.

  4. I agree. A sharp pencil, a lined notebook and some good lighting and you can write anywhere. Just think, some of the biggest changes became widespread in just the last 70 years. My mom said how it was a big deal when the power company came out and put a yard light at their farm. As kids they would go out and play under it. Before that, she also said they would sit out at night and watch the radio tower lights blinking as that was the only light for miles around. And think of all the things we take for granted as part of everyday life. But then we get upset when the power flickers off and our internet connection drops for 5 minutes while connections reset.

  5. I love technology but I’m really slow to grab onto anything knew. Example: Still struggling with how to make a blog. I would think the greatest while writing in Austen’s time would be poor light and the writing utensils. I can’t imagine reading or writing by candlelight or having to sharpen a nib or deal with messy ink. Yes, give the woman a pencil with a good eraser. Interesting thoughts.

    • I like that idea! Imagine what it would be like to hear Austen narrate her own work. Maybe if we could travel back in time and drop off some Edison wax cylinder recording equipment she would be able to record her own words, but imagine how many cylinders it would take for Mansfield Park.

Your thoughts are precious!