The book is dead; long live the e-book. Or so the hype and scare-mongering would have us believe. As a writer, I have as much reason to be curious about the likely impact of e-books a anyone, so I snuggled up with the Sony e-book reader and a glass of wine and gave it a chance to prove itself.
‘E-book reader’ is a naff name. Surely I am the reader? Never mind. I opened Anna Karenin. Within the first page (=screen) the straight quotation marks, dull font, US spelling and poor tracking were making it a teeth-gritting experience. The standard text size is about 7 point to squeeze most of a page onto the screen. Zooming in, the text reflows and the page count at the bottom of the screen updates. The e-book reader now says it’s showing page 45 of 4,502. That’s rather daunting. You can’t see at a glance how far through you’ve got – 45 of 4502 is 1%, so that would be about page 5 of the ‘real’, 500-page book. If I was on page 683 of 4502, the maths would be harder.
I miss the satisfying wodge of completed, crinkled, warm pages in my left hand and the pristine pile on the right, tightly packed and full of promise. Instead, there’s just the orphaned current page. It isn’t even a page – it’s a fragment, a disembodied, lost messenger from the rest of the book which is – where? Nowhere; stolen. The book has been dismembered and thrown to the winds, like Osiris. An e-book doesn’t feel as if it exists – every ‘page’ you’re not looking at winks out of existence, like some elusive quantum particle. You can’t flick through the pages, which I hated. Without flickability, it’s impossible to check which character with a long Russian name (or three) is which.
Perhaps Anna Karenin wasn’t a fair trial as I know it already, so I switched to The Book Thief, which I haven’t read (I know, shame on me). I was immediately lost. There are none of the clues and cues that a printed book gives. How long is this book? What’s it about? What’s it like? In a real book, the cover, the weight and colour of the paper, and the layout (font, size of margins, position and content of header, position of page number, twiddles and decoration) all convey messages and set up expectations. I had never been as aware of page design as when there wasn’t any. After a chapter or two, I’d had enough and turned to the paper copy, languishing on the ‘books to read’ shelf. It felt like coming home. While the e-book uses a mundane, blocky type for the title, the paper book is exquisitely designed, with carefully chosen fonts that communicate the character of the tale. The grey, backlit screen of the e-book (the much-vaunted E-Ink technology) has a deadly pallor that drains the text of life – which I suppose might be appropriate in this particular case. The hardback’s creamy paper is easy on the eye and gives a sense of antiquity and seriousness. On paper, The Book Thief uses the real estate of the page creatively; it also has large pages. It’s a strange choice for e-bookising as the specialness and solemnity bestowed by the extravagant use of white (not grey!) space contribute hugely to the character of the book.
I missed a lot reading the e-book. When I re-read on paper what I’d just read on screen I found I’d missed some of the elegance of the style, felicitous use of language, even points of plot. And it wasn’t just because I was re-reading: I read the next chapter on paper first and then in the e-book, and still noticed more on paper. On the screen I saw the grammar – not even style, just grammar – and picked out grammatical ‘errors’ that were allowable elements of style. I wonder if this is because with my own writing I correct grammar on screen, but style and other elements on paper. It would be interesting to know if other writer/readers find the same.
Turning the page in a real book is an event. In a picture book, particularly, the action of turning the page is often integral to the story – it’s a moment of suspense, then discovery, of changing scene or surprise. Turning the page of an e-book means pressing a button; the screen goes momentarily blank before the new page appears. I found its blinking into oblivion distracting and distressing. Brief panic – where’s the story gone? It breaks that meta-suspension of disbelief that lets us believe the story is all there is and the outside world has vanished, and reminds you every time that this is not really real. People say they stop noticing the screen’s blank stare of bewilderment after a while. I’m a master of the blank stare of bewilderment, and I don’t need books or electronic devices doing it back to me. If I became immune to it, I’d be disappointed in myself. Interestingly, I did on one occasion lift my hand to turn the page in the usual way – and was frustrated to have to lower it and press the button.
One of the selling points of the e-book reader is that it’s light, so you can take lots of books on holiday. It always weighs the same, whatever you’re reading, however many books it holds. But the weight of a book tells us something about what the pages contain. We value things that are heavy – a weighty argument, gold … Light is lite is superficial. All e-books weigh the same (nothing) and all look the same. It makes a difference whether we read a book in hardback or paperback, in an old Penguin with an orange cover or a shiny new edition. The e-book reader robs books of their individuality. It is, indeed, a book thief. It does not deal in ‘books’ at all, but in texts that it tries to persuade us are the same thing (which, of course, they are not).
All e-books look the same to everyone else, too. I will talk to someone on the train who’s reading something interesting, but not an anonymous e-book. (It will make a good disguise for pornography.) And how will we judge new potential friends if we can’t scan their bookshelves? It will be hard to open their e-book reader and scan its contents discreetly.
The e-book reader is pretty unsatisfactory if you want to read a literary novel. But literary novels account for few of the books published each year. Some non-fiction and reference books could be usefully bought and used as e-books, particularly if the interface of the reader were improved to make moving around simpler. And there are plenty of fiction not read in nicely designed editions. My father is in his seventies, and reads a lot, usually science fiction. I gave him the e-book reader and he read the script of A Clockwork Orange, all the way through – or to within six pages of the end, when the battery ran out. He is not bothered about the page layout and said he would use it if there were books he wanted to read available (there are), if it were cheaper, and if the books were cheap.
This last point is significant. An e-book has no physical substance – it’s just a downloaded file. The cost to the publisher is similar to producing a paper book until the files are shipped to Far-Off Lands for printing; thereafter, it is zero. No paper, no binding, no shipping, no warehousing, no stock movement, no returns. They should be much cheaper than paper books, but they are not. Why? Surely if publishers gave away e-books with printed copies for now (which will cost them next to nothing) that would encourage customers to get e-book readers? They could read the real book at home, but carry the e-book to read elsewhere. When enough people have readers, e-books could be 99p. This is not ridiculous. I asked a publisher for some figures and it would be possible for an unillustrated, mono book (there’s no colour e-book reader yet anyway).
That’s fine if we really want e-books. But even if e-books are cheap, the reader is expensive. Is a family supposed to share one, and take it in turns to read? Or pay £200 for each of four or five? Do we give one to each child, and replace it as regularly as we replace lost/stolen/dropped/washing-machined/trodden-on iPods and phones? (Incidentally, neither of my daughters was remotely interested in the e-book reader, despite being complete technojunkies.) And when some books are produced only as e-books, what will there be for people who can’t afford an e-book reader? I have a horrible feeling that e-books could undo all the good work for literacy rates that Gutenberg started: if only the rich can afford to read, aren’t we back where we started?