I’ve noticed that conversations with e-reader non-adopters always seem to end with proclamations about how much they love the feel of real books in their hands; e-books are all very well, they say, but you can’t beat the feel of a traditional, print book can you?
The sheer prevalence of this response has got me thinking about what it really means. Interestingly, when questioned further about what exactly they like about the feel of books, the conversation turns more vague and, if pressed on how this compares to the e-reader experience, most of these book-feel fans admit they haven’t tried one.
I am a recent Kindle adopter and I love it. It’s light, portable and convenient and, having used it for a while, print books now feel a bit cumbersome and unwieldy in my hands. Large hardbacks seem particularly difficult to manipulate and carry while new books spring shut too easily unless you break the spine, a definite bibliophile no-no. On a recent trip to Rome, my Kindle allowed me to transport several guidebooks, 2 Italian phrasebooks and a number of novels to keep me informed and entertained throughout my trip, something I could never have achieved through the physical book medium.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the rise of the e-book is problem-free. Clearly there are issues such as increased cost and privacy concerns. I also worry about literary content increasingly being licensed to users rather than owned in the same way that a physical book is owned and the limitations imposed by restrictive DRM software.
There are also things I do miss about the physical book format, the book-shelf experience for one. I spent a very pleasant half an hour last weekend browsing my book-shelf with a friend, discussing books I’d enjoyed and passing on novels I thought she’d enjoy. Browsing the list of e-books on my Kindle does not offer a similarly satisfying experience and, although Amazon has introduced some lending rights on e-books, this is currently not available in the UK, and in any case it would only be possible to other owners of the same device.
But the feel of books? I can’t say that’s something I miss. I love reading. I’ve been an avid reader since I was a child and I think the written word might be the medium that has inspired and moved me the most in my life so far. What has inspired and moved me, though, is the content of the books I’ve read, whether this was printed on a page or delivered digitally via my Kindle.
Perhaps the enthusiasm for the feel of books originates from a vague fear that a comforting and familiar medium is being phased out. Undoubtedly the structure of the publishing, book retail and library environments will look very different in years to come, and not all of the developments will be for the better. Times change though and, like it or not, technological progress will not, and should not, be stopped. The complete reorganisation of an entire industry has happened many times in the past, the move from analogue to digital cameras for example and of course the advent of the mp3 player, and it will happen again in the future.
Some people seem to view the rise of e-books as a danger to literature that should be fought. Take for example the recent comments by Booker winner Julian Barnes, about print books having to be beautiful to resist the rise of e-books. It’s as if it’s a competition, lines have been drawn and you have to pick one side or the other. One friend told me recently that, though she thinks an e-reader would be more convenient, she would feel a bit disloyal to the print book format by moving over to the e-book camp.
I don’t see it as a competition. As long as I am able to feed my passion for reading, one way or another, I will be happy. Instead of putting up futile resistance to the e-book format, I think our energy should be directed towards making this new medium as effective as possible. We need to fully understand the benefits and the risks associated with e-books and address these now, while the industry is still in its formative years.