As well as reading a lot of books, I try to read a lot about books. Originally this was limited to The Bookseller and various newspapers, but recently I’ve branched out into the ‘blogosphere’. Sure there’re a lot of amateurish and ill-informed blogs out there (mine included, I imagine); but wade through the crap for long enough, and you’ll eventually find something that shines. There are indeed people with very interesting and insightful things to say about books, writers and reading. However, there is one issue that polarises opinions more than any other, one topic of debate which causes even the most eloquent of intellectuals to devolve into a ranting and petulant child of fancy: the e-book.
E-books inspire extremes of feeling, and while it’s great that people are so impassioned by their identity as readers, it strikes me as odd that so many otherwise liberal and open individuals feel a need to plant their flags and declare outright war on one reading medium, or the other.
In one corner we have the literary luddites; the puritans of paper. You know the type: page sniffers. These are people who fetishise the very paper, ink and glue of books, and for whom reading is as much a tactile experience as it is cerebral. They do solemnly reject the e-book in all its forms. For the literary Luddite, Kindles are only good for kindling. They fear what may be lost with the coming of the e-book; but it’s a fear that’s without any sense of proportion.
In the other corner (the one you can’t fold down), are the lovers of e-books, technology fetishists; people who espouse a kind of readerly scientific determinism; ‘we can read this way, therefore we must’. They are always to be seen with an e-reader in one hand, a take-out coffee in the other (probably) and a smug expression that seems to say: I have liberated myself from the medieval restrictions of the printed word. This attitude is one of forever pushing forward, but with a nihilistic rejoicing in the demise of the old.
Okay, so maybe I’m generalising – but only a little. Perform a quick search of internet blogs, and I’m sure you’ll be amazed by the sheer amount of people vowing to out-and-out reject one medium in favour of the other. My obvious point is that both stances are utterly ridiculous. The histrionics of reading needn’t be so divisive. It may be unusual of me, but I’m calling for the middle ground.
I don’t in anyway object to e-books, and am planning on owning my first e-reader as soon as it’s possible. But buying an e-reader doesn’t mean I’m rejecting the printed word – and why should it? I have no fervent, obsessive loyalty to physical books, and I won’t engage in an almost perversely quasi-religious self-denial just to achieve some non-status as a ‘pure’ reader of print.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both mediums; e-books are cheap, convenient, environmentally less damaging (if that’s your bag) and almost infinitely space-saving. However, unless Sony are planning to release a 24-inch e-reader, then books of art, design and cartography will always be better served by the printing press. In the Red Room, at least, there is ample space for both mediums to co-exist. I imagine that I will continue to read physical novels even as I buy e-books, and while I do enjoy the tactile experience of reading – the feel of good paper, or the barely-there indentations made by a letterpress on the page – I don’t require it in order to fully enjoy reading. We all know, really, that it’s the words that matter; and only in the words are the meanings found. Rilke’s poetry, or Chaucer’s lyrics mean just as much to me scrawled in my own hand or re-produced digitally as they do in the most decorative and lavish of books that the printing press can produce. That which is Shakespeare by any other medium is still Shakespeare.
Of course there are things that the e-book market cannot offer. Last Saturday I drove to my local bookshop, expecting to spend just a couple of minutes buying my next book, and ended up having an unplanned two-hour discussion with the owner about the idiosyncrasies of modern English writing. Clearly this is an experience that Amazon will never be able to supply. And striking up a conversation with an otherwise complete stranger on a train or in a cafe, purely because you’ve read the book they are now reading, is an experience unavailable to the readers of e-books (a friend of mine has suggested that e-readers incorporate a back-screen, which displays the cover art of the book being read – brilliant idea). It is for these reasons – those of experience and community – that I believe the printed book will never die.
So please, don’t reject any form of writing just because it’s new (or old). The arrival of the e-book will (eventually) change the book market in significant ways, but this doesn’t mean we have to say goodbye to what came before it. I have faith that the two –the e-book and the printed book – can coexist, and I’m sure that society will not do-away with the better aspects of print purely because of the economic convenience of the new form. Call me naive, if you’re so inclined. The e-book may even turn out to be a force for greater good than people imagine. It may hail a sea-change in the way we read; any book accessible anywhere, to anyone, is surely something desirable; and if the cost is a partial diminishing of the world of printed books, then maybe it’s a price worth paying; if people will read again.