In honour of World Book Day, there was an article in the Stylist by Lucy Mangan complaining about how much she hates e-readers. Unfortunately, I agree with much of what she says, but in the name of balance I feel a pro-e piece must be penned. I mean ‘typed’, of course, because the only people who still use pens are either 8 years old or 80.
Yes, I know. Books are lovely. They feel good in your hands, they smell good, and they even sound good when you flip pages over, thump them down on a table or snap them shut. Bookshops are fertile hunting grounds and far more fun than supermarkets. Bookshops have carpets, classy music playing and soft lights, as opposed to the standard supermarkets’ loudspeakers playing all the hits you hate on Radio Blergh, fluorescent strip-lighting and the ubiquitous smell of stale milk (why?).
But in order to enjoy the bookshop, you have to get to the bookshop. This means un-lovely, un-classy public transport for most of us, time spent on buses in London traffic, as far as I am concerned, being time wasted because I can’t read on the bus due to my weak sea-legs and strong puke-reflex. You also have to lug the chosen books home with you. Once you’ve read said books you’re stuck with the damn things, and they start falling apart and biodegrading. Otherwise you’ve accidentally spilt tea on them or dipped them in the bath (we’ve all been there), the cat got hold of one corner and your flatmate borrowed your book for a trip to the coast and now it’s full of sand.
Online bookshops may not have carpets or Kenny G, but they are convenient. Anywhere there is WiFi or 3G there is a bookshop in your hands. I cannot describe my joy in discovering that many titles are even free because of something to do with this thing called ‘copyright’ magically wasting away over time, just like bladder control. This means that normally expensive works of the classical canon are mine, all mine, for free! My miserly streak and glee at getting things for free notwithstanding, I think this is a very encouraging step in the right literary direction.
As you’ll no doubt be aware due to the high saturation of adverts, the e-reader offers a comfortingly wide array of titles to choose from. I’ve relished downloading a number of titles I’d otherwise have avoided for being too heavy – literally. Anyone familiar with the ritual of tube travel in London knows that clinging to a handrail and holding a heavy tome such as ‘Shantaram’ open one-handed is almost impossible. My Kindle would have been particularly handy (aha) when I broke my wrist last February and had to use my chin to open books in the right place, and then try to pick up the errant bookmark with my toes when it went floating away. My mother once infamously bisected a book for being too heavy (it was Women Who Run With the Wolves) and posted out parts of it to various female relatives who were shocked to receive one third of a book glued together inside an envelope, no doubt reminiscent of body parts sent for ransom purposes.
In her article, Ms Mangan argues the case for bookcase-gazing. This is fine, though arguably not a productive use of time. More to my point though, is that not many have the luxury of space in their homes in which to have a bookcase. In my crammed household we have room only for the bare essentials like a dining room table, a few sofas, an indoor tree and a fluffy cat. We were thinking of shaving him to make him more compact. I hear my housemate awake in the morning with mugs falling off his windowsill, shoes piled up next to his bed and a cupboard door that won’t open because of a pile of clothes and his battle cry is sounding alarmingly like “Lebensraum!”. I have one shelf above my bed which is groaning dangerously under the weight of the 20 or so books I decided to keep. The rest were reluctantly given to the charity shop because I just don’t have the space, and I’m unlikely to ever read those books again. On top of the danger of these books toppling down and smothering me in my sleep is the sad fact that many of the books I have kept are not pretty. The colours on the spines don’t all match, and one of my all-time favourite reads is frankly pug-ugly – it’s all dandruff grey and bilious yellow and I would much rather have it on my Kindle. No, bookcase gazing does not appeal to me. Neither does bookcase dusting, or death by falling bookcase.
My e-reader, though, is pretty, and not likely to crush me in my sleep. I gaze at it for about 2 hours every day. It has a brown leather cover that matches my bag and my jacket, though I’m careful not to wear the matching brogues at the same time, obviously; one needs to know when to stop; and little images of birds and famous authors sprinkle into existence whenever I tell it to sleep. The unexpected joy of seeing John Steinbeck when I was 10% through ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ one day was all the more poignant for how being an experience unique to a Kindle reader. Also it was good to finally see a human face not etched into my mind’s eye as starved and homeless. It is light too. I have notoriously weak arms (described as ‘al dente’ by my dance instructor) but even I can manage a Kindle one-handed while I do something important with the other hand like stir spaghetti or shave the cat.
Sarah Fern Middleton