Sunday, 27 September 2009

To Hell With Books!

The paper kind, I mean. Let us embrace the convenience of the e-reader!

Now, this is hardly my heartfelt position on the subject of digital books. Like most wordy people I love my tatty old paperbacks and don't like the idea of a hand-held reading unit, no matter how slimline. But there would be little point adding my voice to those already busily (and ironically) defending paper in on-line forums and blogs. What else is there to say? Books are the most highly-evolved form of carbon capture known to man, they are always beautiful (even when their spines fall off) and a house with no books is a sorry and cheerless place. We love 'em so hands off!

But the fact is, the digital book – which has actually been with us for years – has recently seen a huge surge in popularity. When I was a student we often talked about the future of the printed book, but few of us were seriously worried about it. In particular, the idea of e-paper screens was not taken seriously. Now, a decade and a half later, there's already a choice of e-reader, with the Kindle possibly coming to the UK soon and new players entering the market. The US already seems to have welcomed e-readers with open arms, with digital sales of the latest Dan Brown novel briefly rivalling the paper edition. And there's talk of colour screens in the near future.

I had a little play with a Sony e-reader recently but I wasn't exactly seduced by it. In any event, I'm not temperamentally predisposed to being in the first wave of anything (though I don't like a Luddite). But it seems to me that there's nothing to be gained from merely complaining about this revolution in the medium of reading, or from hoping that it goes away. And might it not be a good thing? To explore that possibility, allow me to speak with forked tongue and give the Devil's defence of digital books.


Paper books are unhygienic. They are wasteful. They take up a lot of space and do their authors no favours.

Why not buy a Kindle instead? It has a such a wonderfully creepy name. For sure, the screen is a putrid shade and the grey text sits ill upon it, but give the tech time; one day paper will seem dull by comparison, and those still reading off it duller still.

Think of the poor planet! Think of the carbon being pumped into the air by book distributors. Think of all those printing sweatshops in the Far East. Just thinking of the ink alone should make you paper-lovers feel tainted with guilt. And think of the swarms of sales reps driving all day to make sure that your over-lit streets stay stacked high with books. Millions of books.

What a shame about half of them will have to be pulped. Chemically.

Turn to the e-reader today and help change this. Yes, in the long run lots of people will lose their jobs, but since e-books are much cheaper, even the unemployed will be able read the latest literature.

And what of the poor authors, watching their incomes dwindle as readers blithely pass on their work or give it to charity shops? How must they feel knowing that one sale might be read by a dozen people, with no control and certainly no recompense? Second hand bookshops are choking writers! But with an e-reader file swapping can be hindered, so that everyone who wants to read a book has to pay for it. And because the costs are low they probably will, which all adds up to a fuller wallet for the people who actually write the stuff in the first place.

So let's go digital. After all, why wouldn't you want to see out-of-print books become available again, or the market in poetry and short stories be revitalised?

Why would you NOT want a library in your pocket?

You know it makes sense! Hisssss...


That's more than enough of that. It's sometimes fun being the Devil's advocate but it's never nice being his mouthpiece. But does he have a point?


  1. No ! Non ! And that's my twopence worth, thank you Thomas.

  2. I have several problems with embracing the kindle:
    a)it's called "kindle" - ugh! Call it what it is, electronic book - e-book, for short, if we must - but not kindle!
    b) it is being championed by that capitalist beast America, so naturally I must - being British Northern proletariat - rebel against it!
    c) it is again a way for the bourgeoisie to make literature the exclusive plaything of the privileged and to exclude the poor. Despite the loss to the pocket we must chant viva the second hand book store because without it I would never have read what I have and my life would have been as poor as my pocket! And think of those kids in Honduras!
    d) I have a real worry that everything will go onto the internet and out of physical print and then what? What if there's a huge technological meltdown? All literature will be lost. Just think of the chaos there is now when there's a power cut. People are way too over confident with technology. We need to keep books and to keep them strong to prevent risk of the kindle surpassing them - we must champion them.
    e) I do not believe in god, and without god the devil becomes irrelevant!
    f) I adore books. They are art as well as craft, as well as functional lovely to hold/to look at/to read/to experience/to own/to borrow things.
    g) I don't think there's much chance of people exchanging kindle texts as there is books - how sad - it's lovely to meet someone new and to exchange a token of ourselves with them in book form - how better to get to know someone?
    h) I hate the idea that one would absolutely have to buy something! The best thing about literature is that it can be got cheaply...will we be charged for thoughts next? This isn't to say that I do not totally accept that writers need to make money and therefore need to sell books - and I know that I as writer am little more than a commodity - I accept capitalism (not a Marxist - honest...maybe a Marxist humanist...but, really not that into politics :)
    I probably have more points and probably need to think my argument through first but I like spontaneity.

  3. Thanks, Rachel for that excellent response! And thanks to you too, Hilary -- I think you're saying more or less the same thing;-)

    I'm not yet won over by e-books, but the phrase 'a library in your pocket' always makes me pause. But I do agree wholeheartedly that the e-reader suggests a world where everything we read is mediated through some device under corporate control (did you hear the story of Orwell's 1984 being deleted remotely from customer's e-readers? What a PR gaff! The Kindle already has a sinister name, it's already getting a reputation to go with it).

    I wonder why they chose that name? Kindle, I mean. I can imagine an airless room in a basement somewhere full of marketing types thrashing out a group of syllables that they hope suggests nice things like candles and children, but ending up with a brand that conjures up fire starting and spiders.

  4. Yes, I heard about the Orwell incident (obviously - being a Marxist I keep close tabs on all things Orwellian!) You know, spelt backwards, Kindle is Eldnik...not too dissimilar from Old Nick... :0

    Love the "candles and children" - brilliant! And spiders...." come into my Kindle, said the spider to the...." Ugh! Makes me shudder!

  5. I like paper books too. They're a comfort, but the devil make some good points.

    I used to think I could never enjoy morning tea or coffee without a newspaper in hand. Now I take my cup and sit in front of the computer to get my news.

    This change seems inevitable so I try to take a philosophical attitude. Save a tree!

  6. Eld Nick! Wow, well spotted. By which I mean, I wish I'd spotted it:)

    Terry, you're right that things change and often we don't notice until something we once took for granted is gone. Like VHS and minidiscs. I remember once saying that I'd never have any use for a mobile phone.

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  8. As Terry said, the devil makes some good points. I love my paper books, but don't like being wasteful.
    My only argument is that I don't want to carry two devices- iPhone and e-reader. I know that the iPhone has an e-reader app, but my eyes don't like reading on the iPhone for prolonged periods.

  9. What Rachel said.

    Having Project Gutenberg online, with all those Edgar Rice Burroughs and Conan Doyle stories always available would've saved my childhood from rereading lame paperbacks, but I haven't read anything there since discovering it and have no interest in e-reading anything.

    By the way, you do a very good Devil.


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