I have been slow to switch to an eReader for a very specific reason. When I’m asked why I don’t have a Kindle or other device I give various answers—hard on my eyes, hard to learn to use the devices, or something similar. But the real answer is that I discover books by handling them.
In a bookstore I pick up a book and study the title, feel the cover paper, and read the back. Is it filled with blurbs by other writers, excerpts from established or unknown review magazines, or a photo of the writer? Does the cover match what the story seems to promise? Sometimes the clues on the cover of a mystery novel never show up in the story. If there's a leopard on the cover, there should be a leopard in the story. How does the cover feel? Is it embossed, matte, glossy? What kind of paper is used for the text? And what else is there, beyond (or before) the text?
In the dark ages, when I was young and a graduate student, a nonfiction book arrived with a discussion of ideas to change the world and enough supplemental matter to buffer the onslaught of the opposition. A scholarly or any other serious nonfiction work contained a half-title page, title page, copyright notice, dedication, preface, foreword, introduction, introduction to the revised edition, table of contents, text, endnotes (if no footnotes), index, and bibliography. There was no separate biography of the author, since his or her qualifications were most likely indicated in the preface or introduction as part of an explanation of the origins of the book.
When I was considering buying a nonfiction book I could flip through the supplemental material and evaluate the scholarship partly on what was present, or absent. I learned something of the topic in the process and knew more about what I was getting into if I decided to buy—and spend time with—this book. I can’t do that easily online.
Also back in the dark ages, a crime novel might contain a half-title page, title page, copyright notice, dedication, brief note if the story was based on a true crime, list of chapters, and novel. Some novels included a map and list of characters. Many novels closed with lists of the publisher’s other books available for sale. The front matter was a way of easing my way as a reader into another world, an unknown one, warning me that with the turn of another page, things would be different.
The copyright page tells me something about the publisher. The standard the statement declaring this story a work of fiction is the least of what I expect to find. I look for information on the printing, such as font, or the quality of paper. I can usually tell by touch, but sometimes the publisher has gone so far as to state this is permanent paper, or printing is in accord with certain library standards. And then there's the Library of Congress cataloging-in-data. Sometimes the choices announced here are enlightening, a way of seeing the book through another's eyes.
I’ve described a lot of supplemental material. Is anything missing? Yes, if the novels I’m reading today are any guide. The novel I just finished reading ended with a five-page list of acknowledgments. Five pages! And this is not unusual. Many of today’s novels contain almost a summary of the entire research and writing process. I do find this interesting, but I’m not sure it belongs in the novel. In my third Mellingham mystery, Family Album, I included an Acknowledgments page with one paragraph of five lines, and a bookseller told me it was “excessive.” I wonder what she thinks about the current practice.
In my 1926 copy of Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the book includes a half-title page, title page, copyright notice, dedication, table of contents, and text. There is no biography of the author anywhere, and no acknowledgments of assistance or guidance. Not even the book jacket has a bio on either flap. Most of today’s books have “best-selling author” slathered across the cover, but this edition of Ackroyd has only a few words across the top: “A Baffling Detective Story.”
As if to make up for the lack of hype and biographical information, the bottom of the front flap contains this charming notice: “The issuance of this new edition at a reduced price is made possible by (a) use of the same plates made for the original edition: (b) acceptance by the author of a reduced royalty.”
If I switch to an eReader, I will miss these details and the process of discovery that comes with picking up a book in a bookstore and flipping through its pages, discovering how it’s organized and how the writer thinks about the topic. Publishers may not announce their royalty practices on a book flap anymore, but there are other discoveries to be found there.