The 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.