“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” – Marcus T. Cicero (106-43 B.C.)
We have a technological freak-out every time something new comes along. The latest technology to whip us into this frenzy is eReaders, such as the Kindle, Kobo or Sony branded tablet things you will have seen around. There are countless discussions about whether this is the end of books and print publications – but I refuse to get caught up in all the hype. Film was not the end of theatre, DVDs were not the end of cinemas, and eReaders will not be the end of the printed word. Hell, there was even an uproar when writing itself was first introduced – what would happen to rich oral cultures if it was all written down, with only the literate upper classes able to enjoy these cultural products? Then, later, the printing press – though, surely, its part in the Reformation of the church is perhaps evidence that some new technologies can provoke drastic change. But is change such a bad thing?
Let’s just be clear about exactly what devices I’m talking about when I say ‘eReaders’. eReaders are single-purpose devices designed for storage and reading of digital books. They use a non-reflective screen made of ‘e-ink’ – a kind of carbon (like they use for actual print) which shifts about the screen to create something remarkably close to the text you’d see in a traditionally printed book. Regular computer screens tire out our eyes because backlight is being pushed through the liquid crystal display (LCD) to create a picture, and this flickers – only slightly, imperceptible to the naked eye, but after long periods in front of a screen, our eyes get tired. Single-purpose eReaders are not backlit, so there’s none of this flickering. The reading experience, then, isn’t like reading off a screen so much as a page. However, despite the similarities to traditional books, it can’t be denied that when you’re reading off an eReader, you’re holding a screen in your hands, not a book.
I’m not resistant to the change that eReaders seem to be bringing with them. Screens are now such a huge part of our lives that moving books to screens is only the next logical step. And they have a whole slew of practicalities that I approve of. Having said that, for every perk of eReaders, there seems to be a down side, leaving me altogether undecided about buying them, and feeling a little overly romantic about physical books.
28th of September 2011.
‘Time to retire your Optus tablet?’ reads the message I receive on Twitter from a friend.
Due to printing costs, I’ve adopted a poor substitute for a real eReader – a backlit tablet sponsored by Optus to double as a phone. The device is a tablet, a phone, supports apps, eReading software, has a camera on it – it does almost everything, but it does it all quite poorly. The thing freezes and jumps often, and sometimes just blacks out altogether. It is about the same size as an eReader, and it carries PDF documents. This cuts down on the printing I need to do, justifying the $150 I paid for the device. Never mind the backlight and the eye strain, it quickly saves me money. It does the job alright – but if I had the money, I’d still prefer a proper eReading device.
My friend has included a link with his message, which takes me to a Wired article about the Amazon launch of the new series of their eReader, the Kindle. Amazon – those champions of the digital revolution, and inventors of popular eReader, the Kindle. They’ve brought online shopping to the point where much of the population is comfortable doing it, creating a demand for the service. The demand springs from just how easy they have made the experience – and this follows for their eReaders, too. On a Kindle device, a book can be downloaded in about a minute. When you make your first purchase on Amazon, they save your credit card details, so that in future you need only click “purchase” for the whole sales transaction to go through instantly. This is an obvious money-swallower for avid readers, but it’s just so easy! You can even download “sample chapters” from ebooks to see if you’ll enjoy them – similar to reading the first few pages before making your purchase at a book store. With books available instantly for only a fraction of the price (you’d pay around $30 for a physical book, but only about $18 digital), it’s hard to say no. The main thing that has stopped me up to this point has been the cost of the device itself.
The cost of the device is a barrier for many who haven’t adopted the technology. The first-generation Kindles cost $400 – that’s a lot of money to think about spending on anything. The price has dropped over the last few years, and the latest release of Kindles has seen the most dramatic price drop yet. The launch on September 28th saw four different versions of the device, all with different capabilities and price ranges. The basic model in the lowest price bracket is selling for just $79. This trumps my $150 for a dodgy substitute. The gap between the digital haves and have-nots is quickly shrinking.
Judging people by their reading habits has long been a reliable litmus test for almost anyone I come across – from strangers on public transport to my first visit to a friend’s house.
Annie Proulx said, “Books speak even when they stand unopened on a shelf. If you would know a man or woman, look at their books, not their software.”
I believe this. If I see someone I don’t know reading Dan Brown on the tram I can immediately discard this person as vapid. Likewise, if I see someone reading maths humour – a genre I didn’t know existed until I saw Alan Brough reading some on the 19 tram – I can reasonably safely assume they’re witty and clever.
I also believe in reading bad writing in order to better know my enemies. I can’t effectively hate Dan Brown if I haven’t read any. In this case though, I don’t take it with me on public transport lest someone like myself misunderstand what’s happening. There needs to be some kind of way to tell the people around you, “I’m reading Twilight, yes, but I’m reading it ironically”. One friend of mine admits to covering shameful book covers in brown paper to avoid any judgements like mine. Once I’ve finished reading whatever awful trash it is, it is then exiled to the Siberia of my bookshelf, set apart or shoved back until I can send it off to the op-shop.
Perving on friends’ bookshelves is a great secret indulgence. They leave the room and I scuttle across to their shelves, quickly noting how things are arranged, if at all. The ratio of classics to modern texts. The overwhelming presence of one author over others. One genre over others. Whether spines are cracked, pages dog-eared. For readers wishing for greater insight into my own character: Fiction A-Z by author then title, reference books next to my desk, poetry and plays are upstairs on a separate shelf with single-author collections, anthologies and literary journals. Non-fiction has a separate shelf also. Some dog-eared, some spines cracked. Siberia is a green bag.
eReaders take away all the glorious judgements I so love making. That guy in the back corner of the tram looking at a screen? I have no indicator of what he’s reading. It could be erotica, it could be Dan Brown, it could be Twilight. I have no way of knowing. And a friend’s book shelf? What book shelf? There’s just one device containing all 200 of their books, and I can’t see any of them, let alone their condition or method of organization – those factors don’t exist at all. When a man’s books become his software, is there any way of really knowing him?
I’m house sitting for my father while he’s away for a month. This is great – I can spend that time catching up on reading and writing, I’ll be in my element.
While packing my bag, I put in two books that I’m half way through. Then I look at the books I’ve bought but haven’t had a chance to read – there’s about fifty of them. I have too many to choose from, and I have to pack ten in order to have three I’ll actually feel like reading. My reading moods change, and I can’t tell in advance what mood I’ll be in when the time comes to start the next book. So in go the ten books, plus the two half-finished ones. Getting this suitcase to my father’s house is a mission, and I end up taking two suitcases: one for books, the other for clothes.
I imagine this predicament doesn’t exist for those with eReaders. They don’t even need to plan what they’ll take with them – they can decide what to read when they finish whatever they’re on now, and then they can download it from anywhere with an internet connection.
Op-shopping for books is the literary equivalent of channel surfing on TV. I’m out of new material, or have plenty of new material but I’m not in the mood for any of it. Op-shops are both romantic and unpredictable.
When I walk in I can smell moth balls and death, reference books and dust. Someone’s Grandma’s china is for sale at 50c a piece, women who own lots of cats are looking through the nightgowns for something lovely, and punks try on anything ill-fitting and plaid for their next purchase. The book shelves groan under the weight of un-pillaged treasures.
Sure, op-shops are reliable for cheap classics and popular books studied in high school. They’re also great for obscure religious texts. But what I love the most is the wealth of independently published fiction that few Nora Roberts-reading housewives have heard of, or the really early work of authors who have since become best-sellers. I don’t have to order anything in as I would at a book shop, because I don’t know what I’m looking for until I get there. Often these expeditions are fruitless, but some of the best and strangest books in my collection come from op-shops. For example, Dick for a Day, in which Melbourne women writers fantasize about what they’d do if they had a penis for a day.
The element of the random is what I love. The thrill of the hunt. You can’t search for that on your eReader.
It’s transportable, it’s getting cheaper, and in some ways it’s cheaper than buying physical books. It’s practical and it’s easy. But is this move to digital really one I want to make? Curling up with a screen isn’t like the romance that comes with curling up with a good book. I can’t dog-ear an eReader without doing anything bad to the electrical stuff inside it.
I can’t get many of the small press publications I so love on eReaders. Only some literary journals and newspapers are available for eReaders, and even then only certain platforms. Even if I embrace the digital shift, I have no fear that it will fully replace my love of the printed word on paper.