In My Opin­ion*

They may be back­lit and able to carry hun­dreds of nov­els—but e-read­ers will only ever be a soul­less fad

Reader's Digest (India) - - Contents - BY A.L. KENNEDY

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 pa­ 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. in­[email protected]

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