In My Opinion*
They may be backlit and able to carry hundreds of novels—but e-readers will only ever be a soulless fad
E-readers will never replace books.
To be clear before we start, I’m not a technophobe. I like watching films on trains, all my relationships would be impossible without texting and many of my friends and relatives only know I’m still alive because of Twitter. The modern world decrees that we must be constantly moving and busy, but—rather like a stranger who punches you in the face, then gives you an aspirin and lets you play Tetris—at least it supplies us with widgets, gadgets and apps so we don’t die of stress and loneliness.
I’m also an avid reader living in a relatively small flat, and a fan of lightweight luggage. But I still can’t find myself at all in favour of Nook, BeBook, Kindle, Cybook or any of the other e-readers loping towards us like expensive wolves. Nor can I see them ever replacing books.
The Kindle currently leads the e-reading field and, though its sales figures are secret, they’re certainly in the millions. A regular torrent of new models and steadfastly isolationist software will sustain its growth, and that of the other devices, for a while. But readers don’t like being consumers—they like being readers—and the ever-increasing rush to foist new equipment and expenses on them may mean they lose patience and go back to hard copy.
Most obviously, real books are far more attractive—take, for example, Julian Barnes’s 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending or the Folio Society’s illustrated editions. And, beyond the fact that books are vastly tactile, smell nice, carry memories and can have personal inscriptions, they’re hugely practical. You can drop a book out of a seventh-storey window. Try that with a Nook.
The other advertised strengths of
e-readers don’t quite measure up, either. You’re supposed to be able to read them in bright light. You can’t. They’re meant to be easy on the eye and fit in your pocket. Only if you’re a masochist with huge pockets. They let you take 500 books on holiday. What are you, a medical student? Who needs 500 books on holiday? And when have you seen a conventional book that requires a manual, loses its charger, develops technical faults, or could do with the assistance of NASA to delete unwanted files from the Cloud?
The idea that technology will allow corporate entities to control increasingly vast areas of our cultural heritage may also be repugnant to the thoughtful reader who worries that his or her virtual books could be removed on a whim, or wiped by a systems failure. Those who have amassed an e-library containing more than beach reading and the athletic romps of flight attendants and
Vikings will be especially concerned.
And more subtly malign effects of e-publishing may repel people. As a writer, I know that the work I produce on screen may look fairly presentable, until I print it out on paper...at which point it’ll be revealed as toxically bad. I’m not clear why—perhaps it’s down to subtle differences in light or the page size. But though technology is improving, bad writing born on screen, processed on screen and then read on screen can now perpetuate a kind of literary death spiral.
Meanwhile, some publishing houses are positioning themselves to profit from the virtual foolishness of self-publishers. The promise of authors supplying both (disposable) content and cash is a huge temptation for a troubled industry, but may well disillusion readers—not least because the world already contains enough poems about cats.
Lastly, we live in an age when our consumption and carbon footprints must reduce, so that our grandchildren don’t hate us as they fight for the fattest rat corpses in the flood waters we’ve left them as a home. It’s been estimated that computers already consume around five percent of the world’s power. E-readers add to our tally of needy devices, incorporate a recklessly large range of materials and are hard to recycle. They’re also designed to be more rapidly obsolescent than a smartphone—which is saying something.
While books do initially use energy to produce, and paper manufacture can be polluting, publishers are increasingly using sustainably sourced stock. Once you’ve read your real book, it can be easily recycled or passed on, perhaps keeping an independent secondhand bookshop in business or helping one of many charity stores.
My advice? Keep it simple. Save your heritage, save your environment, save your time—and enjoy a real book.
Screen vs. paper? What makes for a more rewarding experience: reading a book in print or on screen? Write to editor. india@ rd.com