Have I sold out?

I did something yesterday that I’ve never done in my adult life. Ever. Not once in living memory. And I’m racked with guilt today. I feel like I’ve sold my soul, gone over to the dark side, crossed a line of no return.

I left the flat for the airport without a book in my bag. Usually I take one book for every two days I’m away – and this time I didn’t take any, not one, even though I had two staring at me lovingly from the kitchen table as I left.


Last month, after years of dithering, I broke down and bought a Kindle. I blame it on the airlines and their meagre baggage allowance. If it hadn’t come down to a choice between wine and books, I’d never have crossed the line.

I love my books. I haul them with me whenever I move. I have boxes of them in the attic at home and my shelves in Budapest are double-stacked. I have converted plants stands to book stands and regularly have stacks of the blighters lining my hallway. I classify them as long-term relationships or one-night stands, the latter being those in which I’m not emotionally invested.

I love the feel of them. The smell of them. The sound of them on a quiet afternoon when I curl up on the couch and hear nothing but the turning of a page. And I like the look of them. The more books someone has in their home, the more I trust them. There’s no scientific explanation for that, but I’ve never laid claim to excessive rationality. I just like people who like books.

Ann Marlowe, writing in the Tablet in January, wouldn’t be impressed with me. She writes about accumulation, and the need to purge, to get rid of books in favour of a minimalist-style Kindle.  Space is of  the essence – but then, which would I prefer? A room with packed bookshelves or one with bare walls… both, cried she, I want it all.

Earlier this year, there was an article doing the rounds about how people retain less information when reading an ebook than a real book… and it’s all to do with turning the page.

When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right. You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual … [The differences for Kindle readers] might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story, is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading. Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader’s sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story.

Anyway, after a month of looking at the thing in its box, I took it out yesterday, charged it up, and downloaded some free books just to try it out. I’m half-way through the first one and I know why it’s free.

One good thing about my Kindle, though, is that it lies flat and I can read and eat at the same time. Which is a bad thing, too, as I should be doing one or the other if I’m serious about learning to be present. Another good thing is that it always weighs the same. Which is a bad thing, too, as I’ve no sense of how far along I am in the book (and no, the percentage metre on the bottom just doesn’t do it for me).

ebook 2

So why do I feel guilty? Perhaps because I’ve been swearing for years that I’d never go there.

A man I like a lot – Stephen Fry – reckons that books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators. So I shouldn’t feel as my going over to the dark side is endangering the species.

Another man I like a lot – Douglas Adams – reckons that lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food. Fair point. Words are good (or bad) wherever they’re written.

And as for Stephen King – If you drop a book into the toilet, you can fish it out, dry it off and read that book. But if you drop your Kindle in the toilet, you’re pretty well done. Enough said, but as I can’t remember ever dropping a book down the loo, that argument doesn’t really hold water. 

I will persevere though and see how me and my new friend get along. Rome wasn’t built in a day and considering the Tablet I bought last year has only seen the light of day once, I should make a better effort to be more tech savvy. And, of course, there’s always the weight issue.


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16 Responses

  1. I’ve converted to e-books and love it. Haven’t done any serious research on it but it must be much more environmentally friendly aswell; a lot of printing, paper and shipping saved! You can also pass them on without worrying about getting your copy back. I’ll bring a memory stick next time I visit…

    1. mmmm… fair point. Good for the environment, yes. But the loss of the visual? Am torn. What about author royalties? Hard to track if everyone is passing ebooks around but I suppose we do that with real books, too. Ok – bring the memory stick 🙂

      1. Book royalties are defined in the contract between the author and the publisher, and is only relevant between those two parties (note this differs from performance works, such as music, which often do have use based royalties). So under most (but not all) country’s laws, there are no royalties for selling used books. Also, when you give away or sell a used book, there is a physical transfer of the product, and thus there is no copyright issues either (since no “copy” was made). But when people sell or transfer “used” e-books there might be a copying of the work (unless prevented by the e-reader device — which some do if the work is copyrighted). Thus copyright law may apply.

    2. In the short term, maybe. But in the long term, depending on use, maybe not. I buy mostly used books (even have many from the 19th century). And these all have zero added environmental footprint. A 19th century book has not require any recharging in the past 100 years, nor did I have to purchase a new, or “upgrade”, a piece of electronic hardware to view them.

      1. What I like about buying used books is seeing their history – the birthday dedications, what some other reader has underlined or annotated – you don’t that with Kindle – or if you do, I haven’t figured it out yet

        1. The inscriptions in old books are amazing. I have one dated 1869, and the penmanship of the person who wrote it is simply incredible — a thing of beauty in its own way.

  2. I feel that reading on-screen is viable enough for those many readers who tend to skim through what they read. My own experience tells me that I can’t proofread my work properly on-screen, it has to be printed out and firmly eyeballed. Even though the two versions are literatim identical and both are by me, there is somehow a difference of perception.

  3. I started reading e-books waaaay back when Palm Pilots did not have WiFi or phone lines. I could not get books in Venezuela, and no libraries either. It was wonderful, pull out the Palm Pilot, and read in all of those long lines at the bank, at the Dr’s office. Project Gutenberg was/is an amazing source of books before Kindle and Amazon. I still have lots of books in my house, and I only read print books in the bath and at the beach. But e-books saved my sanity. I am hooked.

  4. Perhaps the pretty severe restrictions on luggage by airlines are a more serious threat to books than Kindle is. Well certainly choices as to what to bring when travelling are influenced by the rules airlines have on checked and cabin baggage.

    I like books on paper and it would be sad if they were to die out- however I doubt if electronic forms of reading will of themselves ever cause this.

    A slightly more serious issue : will the quality of what people read fall as more and more reading moves over to electronic form ? Publishing and disseminating both rubbish and quality writing is easier, faster and probably more economic with the aid of modern technologies. I have no hard evidence, but I think that the quality of what people choose to read will depend on many factors apart from just the form in which they access it.

    1. You know, that struck me too. At least the costs of publishing ‘real’ books made publishers a little more discerning. Who was it that said – all of us have a book in us; and for most of us, that’s where it should stay…

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