You’ll have to take it from me that I started to harbour these heretical thoughts a while ago and certainly before getting wind of the Guardian article kindly summarised by Snowbooks on their blog. But it did come to a head last night when a T.V. advert flited across my consciousness. The perky graphics and a whimsical melody made me assume the product was a mobile phone or a bank account (no hi-tech hard-sell here) but it was the Amazon Kindle e-book reader. And the heretical thought? Yes, I want one. Not necessarily a Kindle, but something that will do the same job.
It’s not the first time I’ve been tempted into this pernicious (as some would seeit) technology. For a short while I did have a Sony e-reader in my possession, just long enough to decide that I didn’t like the book (Dan Brown) but I did like the technology. I even told some fellow bibliophiles about this experience and I could see that they accepted my arguments (handy for a holiday, not like reading from a screen) without for a moment being convinced that anything could be better than the tried and tested all-time winning invention that is the book. At that point I thought the same – that an e-reader would be a handy extra reading tool rather than one that would replace the contents of a book-case or bedside table.
So what has changed? Well, here comes the true heresy. After seeing the advert I began to think about why I like reading from a book, and discovered that in many respects I don’t find them particularly convenient. Hardbacks, which I occasionally pick up in the library, are too expensive to buy and definitely no good for the handbag/suitcase scenario, as I know from recent bus journeys when the weighty novel has been ditched in favour of a drink and a sandwich. Paperbacks I like in principal (so colourful and nifty) but in these harsh economic times I think design has often gone out of the window. Typefaces are too small or lines are too close together, resulting in a lack of white space on the page. Paper chosen by publishers (with some honourable exceptions) is cheap and nasty. Perfect binding means that pages spring together when you want them apart, and any pressing or bending risks damaging the spine. And I have never been a habitual reader in bed, mainly because I’ve never found a reading position (book, bedclothes, pillow, light) that I can comfortably maintain for more than ten minutes. And any paperback more than 400 pages long wil probably fall apart after two readings, so ‘permanence’ isn’t really a factor.
So, what is so great about books? Well, the concept of movable type was an all-time winner. The book has held its place as the prime vehicle for scholarship, entertainment, culture and information for centuries, and so that was a damned fine idea too. As physical objects they are also, in general, pleasing so that their ownership has become a source of pleasure and a status symbol (these two things being so closely intertwioned that a house without books would feel very strange, and ow would we live without libraries? ). I also worry that if we abandon all ‘hard’ copy in favour of electronic media, that the potential for the loss of swathes of literature and research at the flick of some foolhardy switch could lead to cultural disaster.
But leaving aside the future of human knowledge, the careers of book designers and the message (or lack of) sent out by my home book shelves, would I rather read novels in paperback or on a reader? My hypothesis is that the reader would be a better bet. It’s one I’m certainly interested in testing out.