Don’t fear the (e) reader

It’s funny how often you hear comments like ‘Who uses these Kindles?’ or “I don’t know anyone who has an e-reader”. So who are these mysterious users of Kindles and electronic readers? Well, here’s a selection:

1) expats like me (I live in Barcelona). With a miserable luggage allowance of 20 kilos on most budget airlines, it gets more and more expensive to haul books overseas. ‘What about Amazon’s free delivery?’ I hear you cry. Well, that’s no good for…

2) people who live in small apartments. I don’t live in a sprawling mansion and so I just haven’t got space on my bookshelves any more. The solution is a Kindle.

3) people with reduced vision (this doesn’t include me). Reading is suddenly easy again as you adjust the display to get larger font. The magnifying glass is clearly also in peril from the e-reader.

4) speakers of other languages. Here in Barcelona, I see many more e-readers than in the UK. This partly a language thing. Catalan has a vibrant publishing scene, but many books are only released in hardback. As English speakers, we’re spoilt in that we know a paperback edition of our favourite books will always be along soon. Many readers of Catalan have to haul a hardback around with them if they want to read a novel on the Metro.

Like many bloggers, I’m an aspiring author. I always dreamed of having a nice paper volume of my work. My ambition was to look at the books on the shelf and turn the pages from time to time, and think ‘I did that’. Now it seems that that will never happen. My destiny is to produce electronic files. But is that so bad?

Every time change comes, people often mourn what has gone before. I once read an article from the early twentieth century where the author ridiculed the idea of giving up the vellum-bound tomes of his library in favour of paperbacks, which he saw as cheap, throwaway products.

Today’s paperbacks are much better quality than those of the 1930s, when generic designs ruled the day. As the new medium evolved, so did the quality of delivery. I suspect that the same will be true of e-books in the future. Few people today would opt for a hardback over a paperback, given a choice.

In any case, no matter what snobbery exists in favour of paper products, it’s clear that other writers are not too bothered about how their stories reach the reader. Recently, Harper Voyager invited submissions from aspiring fantasy and sci-fi authors. The reward was an edited ebook of their novel. In the mere two-week window of opportunity, they received no less than 4,563 submissions:

Personally, I’m really enjoying my e-reader and I have noticed that it has already changed my reading habits. For example, I’m re-reading Moby Dick on my Kindle. It’s a novel that I found exhausting on first read, especially when confronted by the mass of pages ahead of me (I am an inveterate page counter). However, on the Kindle I just concentrate on the page in front of me and don’t worry about what is to come. I also find the completion bar at the bottom of the screen strangely comforting. It already tells me that I am 3% of the way through Melville’s tale. 3%, and our narrator Ishmael hasn’t even got into bed with the tattooed harpooner Queequeg yet, let alone encountered Captain Ahab, the manager from Hell.

There’s also the dictionary built in to the reader, which is very handy when a word like ‘quahog’ pops up. Apparently, it’s a type of clam found in New England (useful for Scrabble, if nothing else).

So let’s not fear the e-reader. It will replace the physical book, at least in all but special hardback gift editions. It’s all part of the natural order of things.


18 responses to “Don’t fear the (e) reader

  1. Apologies if my last comment was somewhat gnomic but I concur with your points and that there is nothing weird about eReaders whatsoever – their adoption is across society and according to taste. My 80+ mother has an iPad whereas the twenty-somethings in the office wouldn’t dream of reading anything other that a paper book.
    My worry it the same as Bruce Willis’ (we have much in common!) is that electronic books and music are individually owned and cannot be passed to the next generation. I loved reading my father’s books and worry that if I go fully digital my son will not have that pleasure, so I still buy paper books if I think that he might enjoy them one day.

    • I wasn’t keen on an e-reader for years either because like the people in your office, I spend all day staring at a computer screen. Why spend my free time doing the same? The Kindle really feels different though, and I don’t even notice the screen when I’m reading.
      It’s a funny one about passing books down. I’ve got loads of books from the 80s (er, as you ‘ll see from the scans on my blog) and it’s amazing how quickly they become yellowed and old. Will the next generation want them? Who knows?

  2. I love my ereader, basically for the reasons you list. It’s light and therefore easy to use when traveling or commuting, and I live in a small apartment with limited storage space for all the books I would love to read/have. And it’s just so easy to find books in English, which can be tricky when living abroad.

    • And it’s not just for us ex-pats. I grew up in the countryside and I remember how hard it was to get any of the books I wanted. The few book shops around just had the same old thing on the shelves…

  3. The only thing that used to worry me about e-readers was what to do when having a bath!
    I soon conquered my fear though – and of course you only need one hand to hold the book and turn the page – another great advantage of the Kindle.

  4. I have to say that I disagree on the statement about preferring a paperback to hardcover. I always opt for hardcover if I have the choice, go ahead and say it because I know it’s snobbery. That being said I do fully agree that e-reading has helped me read books that I put down before because they were too long. I, also, am an obsessive page counter.

    • I didn’t mean to suggest that reading hardcovers was a snobbish thing to do, rather that people look down on e-readers unfairly. I do have a very nice hardcover biography of Raymond Chandler waiting on my bookshelves, once I finish my ocean voyage with Moby Dick.
      Thanks for posting!

  5. I have an eReader and love it but I still love having an actual book in my hands. I prefer it but that may change when I get a newer eReader as mine is quite old. Interesting post! I posted an author interview/giveaway if you’d like to come over and check it out and/or enter. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    Leigh Ann
    MaMa’s Book Corner

  6. I’m a person who has bought many books over the years, and now that we have downsized into a smaller house, they are mostly in boxes out in the shed. I’m starting to see the appeal of an eReader!

    The one thing I find frustrating about eReaders is that it’s difficult (if not impossible) to flick through them and open them at a random page. I’m a person who often seeks inspiration for something creative that I’m doing in non-fiction books. Yes, I can use the index, but sometimes I don’t know what I’m looking for until I see it. The eReader i have is ‘My Bookshelf’ app on an Android tablet that is not a dedicated eReader. Maybe it behaves differently to dedicated eReaders?

    In my professional life, I’m an instructional designer, writing training materials, and also referring to many sources of information, including books. It is easy to bookmark sections I need to come back to in an eReader, but harder to scan through quickly to get a visual ‘overview’. The ability to carry fewer reference books between home and the office (when I work away from home) is good.

    I think there is a place for both eReader and books, but my special books will always be physical books, I think. Who knows, I may change my mind in time.

    Thanks for your thought provoking article.

    Lisa .

    • Hi Lisa

      Those are some very good points. Our family always had a big twenty-volume set of encyclopaedias in full colour, and I used to love flicking through them and come across random articles.The e-reader does make it harder to stumble on things like that. In general, I prefer the ereader for novels and fiction. I’ve never read a heavily illustrated book on it and I’d much rather use a “proper” book to do that (dare I use the word?)

      Thanks for commenting!

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