Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The death of print - bah humbug!

I have recently reviewed a couple of books that were provided in pdf format which has given me the opportunity to really evaluate the difference between reading a physical book and a book in electronic format  (be it any brand of electronic book reader or Pads, smartphones, laptops et al). I have occasionally read short stories on my phone but am more likely to use it to catch up on emails or twitter.

Electronic books are practical for so many reasons.

Amazon Kindle
Whenever I go on holiday, half the weight of my luggage is taken up by books. And I still run out of reading material, one of the penalties of being a fast reader. The idea of taking one device with me that can have dozens if not hundreds of books so that I don't have to resort to other people's holiday books left behind is attractive.

It would save space on bookshelves. I currently have 8 bookcases at home and am constantly expanding and running out of room. Not needing to find space for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (other encyclopaedias are available) or other reference books would free up a lot of space.

It would mostly save money once the the device itself has been paid for. Books are substantially cheaper in e-format (typically at least 60% off RRP, although sometimes they are bizarrely more expensive than the printed version) and there's no postage to consider or time expended in visiting a shop or waiting for a delivery  or stock to arrive either. The thought and purchase can be virtually instantaneous.

Sony Reader
I wonder about the environmental cost though; how long would you have to keep an e-reader for and how many books would you not have to buy to make it better for the planet?

Out of print books are more readily available, although not all, and those books that are available online in non proprietary format such as the Gutenberg Project, can be instantly and freely acquired, thus upping my bibliography substantially at a stroke.

I would have said you can't read them in the bath, but several of my friends tell me they read their laptops and smartphones in the bath without consequences, so maybe you can. But I wouldn't advise dropping it in.

I was able to read my pdfs on my laptop, without my contact lenses in and without getting sore eyes, comfortably, in bed which I have to say was a minimum requirement.

So if they're so practical, what's the hesitation?

Old fashioned, cloth bound,
slightly smelly, tatty and definitely loved book
I don't want to caress an e-reader . Nor do I want to smell it.

I've recently had the opportunity to take down all my fiction and put them back up again. Any re-arrangement of books offers the opportunity to rediscover books that were hiding and to smell dusty, musty books that have been unloved. The smell of old books is unique.

I love the history of my books, remembering when I first read that copy on my shelf, and when for a few of them, I lost 'that' copy and had to buy another. Seeing the price in pencil on the inside cover, the occasional inscription from a friend who brought me a treasured gift, or the ex-library stamp which dates my purchase according to town purchased; these all give memories to the book. A forgotten bookmark, a railway ticket or a postcard all help to immortalise a particular copy. Food stains too appear occasionally as well as the greasy fingerprint.

As the decades pass and an author's popularity waxes and wanes, the style of covers changes; sometimes they become more lavish with an increase in popularity but each edition is different. The illustrator for a new author's book may be an unknown, but may be swapped for a more popular one as the author increases in popularity, or maybe the original illustrator gains his own popularity and stays. Noting how early an edition and how old the cover demonstrates how long I have been loyal to a long loved author.

Back to practical matters, you cannot flick through an e-reader, glancing at chapter headings and occasional word. You cannot visually see that you're 2/3 of the way through a book. You can't instantly tell how many inches thick a book is; somehow the number of pages doesn't feel comparable.

But it's not about practical matters. If it were I would have bought one. I love the physicality of books, holding them, seeing them up on the shelf, flicking through them, and all the associated memories they bring. Until any kindle / Reader / tablet / smartphone etc. learns how to compete with the emotional attachment of books, books are safe.