I don’t love books! (I love stories.)

The Opposite of Life: iPad2, print and KindleThe big question on every literate set of lips lately seems to be “Do you prefer old fashioned paper books or e-books?”. I’m not convinced it’s a valid question. I read stories, in whatever guise they come in, which means I read both digital and print books, and my preference is for whichever one is on hand at the time.

I certainly understand the affection readers have with the printed word. I have myself thrilled to the view of actual manuscripts, kept tantalisingly under glass, of the great books and diaries of yore. I’ve seen one of the first editions of Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in a castle in Poland, alongside one of the oldest known atlases in the world. At the British Library, my spine shivered in empathy at the last words in Scott’s diary: “For God’s sake look after our people.”  The written word, on the page, can be spellbinding.

But not all printed words are world changing. Not all books are lovely to hold and look at. Sometimes, no matter how thick the paper or lavish the cover, the story within those pages is bland, or vile, or simply not my cup of tea. The argument that a story is only worth reading if it’s in a book just doesn’t hold for me. As a writer, I find it vaguely offensive that it’s the format, not the story held inside it, that counts.

Perhaps my view comes from the fact that I’m a traveller too. I’ve been reading e-books, on and off, for ten or more years. My husband and I like to travel light (partly because he’s a travel writer and we’re often moving every few days and heavy suitcases get in the way). With only a small backpack into which to fit our temporary lives, we were early adopters of Palm Pilots and would load travel guides and classic literature onto the devices before the trip. (I still miss the neat auto-scrolling capacity my Palm had, so I could eat a meal and read without having even to flick the page with a finger!)

The format was a necessity for the way we travel, but the convenience was marvellous. I didn’t have to worry about favourite books getting damaged as they collided with everything else in my handbag.  If my train was delayed, or I had to spend an irritating amount of time in a waiting room, I always had several books on hand. As screens have developed, it’s become easier and easier to read from them. I used my smartphone to hold my books for ages, and now my Kindle has a delightful matte screen and I can change the font size for those tired-eye days.

Have I found having an e-reader is changing my reading habits? Yes. I’m reading a lot more: at lunchtimes at work; on the tram; waiting for the tram; at home; at cafes. I am reading several books at once, which I can choose from depending on my mood, because I have all of them with me at once. I’m more likely to spontaneously buy a book on  reading the review or getting a recommendation, rather than trying to remember the title next time I’m near a bookshop that’s open. Having a digital to-read pile is less intimidating than my still rather large paper book stash, and easier to add to. (This great news for publishers who benefit from my impulse buying; less so for my bank balance.)

Of course there are going to be less pleasant consquences of the e-book revolution. Bookselling giants like Borders and Angus and Robertson are already disappearing. Will the independent and boutique bookshops follow? I’m not convinced they all will, but I don’t know what the future holds or how readers will adapt to the new market. I’m concerned that access to books may be restricted to people on lower incomes because e-devices may not be affordable and the cheap books, championed by the likes of Penguin, may not longer be available.

It may be some years before the dust settles on the e-versus-tree upheaval and we see how it all pans out. Like all such upheavals, some changes will be for the better, some for the worse. I suspect that books on paper will never leave us, and that when readers discover an digital book that hits them in the heart, they’ll go an buy a lovely paper edition to display on the shelf, to hold and re-read and adore. And people who find a beautiful print book may then buy a digital edition to preserve that book in all its shiny glory while reading the e-book to digital death. Some people will continue to love and seek out dog-eared copies of pre-adored stories with notes in the margins, in the manner of Helen Hanff, while others will treat bound editions like precious art, not to be damaged in any way.

But people will keep on reading. They will keep finding the stories that tell them about themselves, or teach them what it’s like to be someone else, however they are told. We’re human: telling and seeking out stories is one of the nobler things we do.

For myself, I read stories in all kinds of formats. I read paper books and e-books. I read comics. I read texts on my computer and on printed-out sheafs of A4 paper. Whatever the format they come in, I read stories and it is the words, not the medium, that transport me.

*Note: The Opposite Of Life (Lissa and Gary)is now available as an e-book, but since I’m even-handed, you can get it in print form from Boomerang Books.


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  • Jim

    Convenience breeds weakness…just saying.

    As for the environmental factor, sadly, most users replace their e-readers long before they have earned their keep.

    • Sadly, most people replace a lot of things before they really need replacing.

      I’m not sure what your point is about convenience breeding weakness. Doesn’t that depend on what the convenient thing is replacing? At one end of that scale, a well and water pump in a village that replaces a 10km round walk to fetch potable water is a convenience that allows people time & energy for other tasks that go beyond survival. Clearly that’s not what you mean here, but I’d be interested to read how the concept relates to this issue. What’s the weakness that concerns you?

    • Actually, on the convenience point, I know people with limited mobility or physical disability who find downloading and navigating with ebooks much easier than with paper books. For some folks convenience means access. Does anybody out there have experience with this?

  • Robyn

    I prefer paper books. I like to see what I’ve got and be able to highlight significant bits. However, there is probably an environmental argument for e-books now – that is, if they are not going to break down and be outdated and replaced at the rate of mobile phones! (Then, worse for the environment.). E-books have the advantage for those of us with older eyes, to be able to enlarge the print to suit. Now that’s handy.

    • Actually, the Kindle has a function where you can highlight passages (and look up definitions from where you sit!) and even post comments on Goodreads. I haven’t tried that function yet but I should give it a whirl just to see how it looks. I’ve never been able to bring myself to write in books at all, though I always appreciated Helen Hanff’s delight at such things.

      Actually, I do have an Australian cookbook from the 60s about how to be a great hostess, full of notes and underlining. It charmed me because I thought it looked like exactly the kind of thing my vampire character, Gary, would do. So I think of it as the cookbook Gary inherited from his mother. I should probably blog it sometime.

      You have a point about the potential shelf-life of technology. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes over the next 10 years. Will people demand something more durable?

      • Robyn

        Do the passages stay highlighted? (like, even when you finish reading the book – unless you purposely delete the highlighting?)

        Prior to university, I was the same way, feeling it was just wrong to write in books. But then I learnt that the more one interacts with the text, highlighting and paraphrasing in the margins, the better recall, and the easier revision later on. And that, was their purpose, to get the knowledge out of them and in to my head, to stay. Not to sit around and look pretty. Other books, art books and the like (which are not my field of serious study), and whose main purpose IS aesthetic, I wouldn’t write in.

        • The marked passages do stay highlighted, and you can make notes, though it’s a little awkward with the small keyboard buttons. I’ve used them to proof e-versions of books, though. You can turn on a function to see what other people have highlighted too, which was interesting when I recently read Utopia.

          I can see the value in marking text books and the like, but it was inculcated into me at such an early stage to treat my books with respect that I’d find it hard, I think. :). Actually, that’s another reason I like my Kindle. Paperbacks kept getting a bit beaten up in my handbag, in there crashing around with everything else, I hated the way they got damaged on the first read. The Kindle is more compact and more durable, and I only read my paperbacks at home now.

  • I must say that the next person who drones on about “the smell of a book” gets a smack from me. Is this *really* the best defence of the print book that can be mustered?

    Personally, I’m really enjoying reading books via the Kindle app on my iPad. I also have various other ereader apps – iBooks, Kobo etc – installed, so there’s choice. However, so far almost everything I read comes via Kindle.

    Big pluses of on-screen reading over print books?

    1. Adjustable font size is a huge bonus, a much bigger asset than I think most commentators realise. I used to refuse to buy print books with a tiny font, because it just wasn’t worth the hassle trying to read them. Not an issue with ebooks.

    2. It’s not true that you can’t read ebooks outside – I’ve been reading from the iPad (with the screen brightness cranked up to 11) at the cafe seating outside the Melbourne GPO. Not perfect, but doable. And the other side of this coin (again not much commented on) is that the backlit screen means I can read books in dark places where I couldn’t read a print book. Hello, reading in funky Melbourne bars.

    3. A big plus for publishers is that impulse buying is much easier on an ereader screen. Several times I’ve read an interesting book review and downloaded the book to the iPad directly afterwards. Much less likely to happen if I have to schlep down to a bookshop (often only to find that it isn’t in stock). The sticking point here is price – I’ll buy ebooks around $10 without thinking, and will consider but probably buy something up to $15. Over that price and you’ll have to really convince me.

    4. The previews that Kindle etc let you download are brilliant, enough of the book to decide whether you really want to read all of it. The same effect can be accomplished by standing at a bookshop shelf, but not as comfortably.

    5. Two words: comic books. They look wonderful on a backlit screen.

    6. Travel. An obvious asset – vast numbers of books, including guidebooks, can be stored and read while on the road. The Lonely Planet city guides also come as apps. I used the Dublin and London ones recently, and they were great. You also look much less like a tourist standing on a street corner looking at your phone, because that’s what locals do too.

    Like Narrelle, I expect the physical book will always be with us but in a specialty, artisan object kind of way. Independent bookshops may survive for the same reason, but there’s no way I’d be buying shares in general bookshop chains.

    By the way, for those who are interested I have two books available via Kindle:

    – A collection of my published articles and stories about Poland, entitled We Have Here the Homicide;

    – And a science fiction / fantasy novel involving Egyptology and alternate worlds, titled Mind the Gap.

    There are links to them here: http://www.iwriter.com.au/books/

    • I’ve definitely bought some second hand books in my time that wre not things I’d want to inhale. Mildrew is not a sexy smell. I can’t really smell books. Only old vellum-and-parchment books seem to have much of a scent for me. Perhaps it’s just olfactoryFail.

  • Amen sister. Its tribalism of a sort I suppose. It takes a bit of upfront cash to get into e-reading and when people make that decision I suppose they are inclined to reinforce their position ie that it was worth the money, they made the right decision. I use both love the appearance of a ell made book and the functionality of an ebook.

    • It could also be that those getting e-readers are ready to make the jump and are more likely to enjoy, or at least not mind, the format. When I first read e-books on my Palm, it was from light-packing necessity but it turned out to be fine.

      Having said all that, I just received a copy of Sophie Cunningham’s “Melbourne” and it’s just the kind if book I think people mean when they extoll the beauty of the format. It’s a compact hardcover with lovely thick, course cut paper. Beautifully designed. I’m looking forward to reading – and blogging – it!

  • Dragonsally

    Amen sister – this exactly.

    I find I’m still buying a lot of paper books – especially if I find them on sale, or they aren’t available in Australia in e book format. I thought having a Kindle would mean I borrow books from the library less, but that hasn’t happened either. It just seems that my to read pile of books here keeps growing – as it does on the Kindle and in the computer.
    I don’t think the naysayers have realized how wonderful e readers are for those of us with disabilities either. An e book is so much easier in all ways…especially now I’ve worked out how to flick to the end of the book and read the last few paragraphs. I wish the primary school teacher who taught us to do that hadn’t installed that habit…but still.