Thursday, 18 September 2008

To e or not to e

This is a topic I've been meaning to blog about for ages - but it's also a topic the world and his wife have already spoken about. I've been collecting articles on the net and in print about it - but I'm deliberately not digging them out again because I just want to give my own opinions, even though my opinions are bound to echo those expressed in said articles. The question is: what do we think of e-readers?

My gut instinct is a Luddite one, and when I saw pictures of Amazon's Kindle machine my baseline hostility had aesthetic revolt added to it. The thing looks ghastly. Why do gadget producers think white is a practical colour for a gizmo they hope will be in daily use (cf Apple products)? That pristine science fiction purity will not last - the thing will end up fingerprint-tainted and smeary. Yich. The Kindle's whiteness just looks cheap to me and the design is pug-ugly and clumsy. It reminded me of gadgets sold in the Seventies with cheesy tacky adverts - do you remember K-Tel? Did you buy a pantograph, perchance?

So, absolutely no temptation factor. A few months ago Borders in Oxford started stocking the iLiad - when I looked at the picture of it on the box, I felt faint stirrings of desire, because at least this one had something I think is an absolute necessity if we're to rush out and buy the things - gadgets like this need to be sexy. They need to be sleek, seductive, beautiful. They need to make us want to reach out and touch. Unfortunately all I had in my hand was an empty box - notices advised customers that a member of staff would demonstrate the iLiad if we asked. No way. I didn't want to be subjected to the hard sell which I assume would be an inevitable component of the demo and would take the fun and intrigue right out of it. Plus it costs £399 - way too much for me to want to take the plunge.

Now along comes Waterstone's, arm in arm with Sony. They've very cleverly gone a step further: they have a Sony e-reader on display and you can touch its buttons, feel its force. You can, in short, play with the thing. It's slim and sleek - it's not perfect, but it has that sexy edge that appeals. It actually seems to be user-friendly and easy to get on with. It's also cheaper: £199 - although I still think that's too high. I feel these things need to be under the £100 mark to really take off. However, when I asked a member of staff in my local Waterstone's, he said they'd sold out and were waiting for new supplies.

So, perhaps, after all the advance notices, the e-reader's moment really has come. This leads to all sorts of alarmist headlines about the death of the book, bleh, bleh, bleh. Nah. Not going to happen. What will happen is that we'll have two complementary technologies, each of which has its own advantages, but neither of which is so perfect as to signal the death of the other.

If I were to buy an e-reader it would be for two main reasons: to store reference books which are vast and unwieldy, and for its portability. This is an area where I feel it could really come into its own: when I'm travelling I'm weighed down by books and, as I noted when discussing my recent holiday, worried that I'm going to run out of reading material (fate worse than death). So a nifty little slice of silver sleekness, loaded with books to suit whatever mood I'm in - brilliant! Downsides? Batteries - what if I run out of power at the most gripping point of the story? Fear of theft - that's a big investment to lose.

Books, now. Ah, books ... I sniff at my new books like a Bisto kid. I stroke their spot-laminated covers. I browse in bookshops and buy books by happenstance - e-tailing and downloading is fine if you already know what you're looking for. I find old books I never knew existed and read notes and signatures written by people long dead who also cherished these words. I pick up a book, I put it down, I pick it up again - it is still there for me, patient and loyal, ready to give up ideas, knowledge and felicitous phrases whenever I want. It does not run out of charge. If I lose my place or want to find a previous reference, I flick. I don't scroll. I can find my way about it with ease and there is a democracy of pages at work. I don't have to jab buttons. In my house, books teeter in piles and are crammed on shelves, their spines a display of colour, of changing fashions in jacket copy, an instant reminder, each one, of when and why I bought it, an instant trigger to feelings I had on reading it, what was going on in my life during that first literary encounter. Some are tucked away, shamefast, like old boyfriends you cannot for the life of you understand once had an appeal for you. Some evoke the safety of childhood. Some scream youthful pretentiousness at you - how embarrassing ... Some are comforts in the darkest night. Some have stretched your horizons. Some make your heart race. Some lull you with the most beautiful of rhythms, the most beloved of words. Some make you cry. And they're all there, eternally waiting without reproach, just for you.

So if someone wants to give me an e-reader for Christmas, well, yippee. It'll be fun. It'll be a frolic. But the love of books, real paper books, tried and trusted (bless you Gutenberg) solid enduring instant-access books - that love is in the marrow of my bones.


Anthony James Barnett said...

Good article, Lorna. E books are a thing I keep meaning to investigate but haven't got around to.

Not, as in your case, to purchase, but whether to submit my work to. I keep wondering how successful Amazon's Kindle is, and what future there really is in the device.

Have you ever considered putting your work down this route?

Anthony James Barnett -

Lorna F said...

Thanks for the comment, Anthony. No - I haven't really thought about submitting work to e-publishing - not because I'm prejudiced about it but because I haven't a clue how it works. The whole e versus print world seems to be in a ferment at present and it'll be interesting, in a few years, to see how it all beds down. In the meantime, I feel pretty triumphant to have set up a blog! I'm currently planning the website I want to set up - so wish me luck with that, and let me know if you have any success with e-submissions.