The Reading Life

This week’s Mind the Gap: How do you prefer to read, with an eReader like a Kindle or Nook, or with an old school paperback in hand? drew my attention….stand by your screens.

My name is EBL and I am a Geek. I work in IT and have done for too many years to admit. OK, it’s more than 25. Actually it’s 26. Some of you weren’t born when I set up my first server in Novell Netware and learned Edlin to handle the batch files.

Read the strap line: this is a nostalgia blog!

I am also a Book Nerd. I had read all the Junior Library books before I was ten and progressed to the Adult section under the watchful eye of the Lady at the Library, who was like a surrogate mother to me. I have no idea of her name, which now strikes me as odd, although it didn’t at the time.

I love books and I love gadgets. So e-readers should be a no-brainer.

And yet, and yet…

I only bought my device in April last year. I had not been impressed by the demos I saw in shops and was a little addicted to the smell of ink. You know the smell I mean; the smell when you open a new book, fresh from the publisher, and riffle those virgin pages. That inky scent wafts out and you are carried away in a haze of antici……

…pation (as Tim Curry would say), the first eyes to scan those pages, the first hands to turn them, smoothing them lovingly until they settle like anxious birds. Or is it just me?

The promise of being able to carry a reasonable library about in my bag seemed pretty appealing; I travel for work frequently so I could see where it would be helpful. I wouldn’t have to carry multiple books or face running out of something to read on those long, dark nights in the hotel room.

The ability to download instantly was a threat to the bank balance; but the option to trial a sample chapter addressed the risk of hasty and regrettable purchases. An e-reader would have saved me from some serious pain by letting me realise that just because some books are popular does not mean I am going to enjoy them (Dan Brown, I am looking at you).

The green credentials were appealing. Save those trees! OK, producing the actual thingummybob would have environmental impacts, but paper is a toxic process too, and we need forests to breathe for our sorry planet.

The final decider was the fact I could resize the text which was important because of my eye problems last year; I had built up three shelves of books which I couldn’t read during that time. It was physically painful to see them piling up and gathering dust, forlorn, unread, despondent and pitiful. One day, I promised them, one day….

So the e-reader was purchased and Project Gutenberg was raided for beloved classics at no cost. I discovered that I could get a newspaper delivered every day for less than the cost of a Sunday paper in the pulp. That was fantastic because where I live there is no newsagent accessible on my way to work, and who wants to read the paper at night?

I have been using the thing for about nine months, and I am using it less and less every day. As soon as I was able to read normal books I started doing so and rediscovered a love of dead tree. I love the feel and smell and heft of a book. What I have learned is that I integrate it all into the reading experience. By which I mean, I want to know how far through I am, really, not by looking at a progress bar. I want to be able to flick back and forth between chapters and stick my finger on a page two chapters ago because I remember a description or an event which is relevant to the story: what was he carrying; where was the car parked; what time did the clock on the mantelpiece say; what colour was the doctor’s coat, or hair, or front door? Sometimes it’s because the writer has made a mistake and jarred my reading, like a continuity error in a film; more often it’s a clue or a link that is important.

My e-reader presents the words, but not the sensory experience of a book. It has no personality. Whether I am reading Lord of the Rings (about 1700 pages) or The Snow Goose (about 50 pages) or a newspaper, the look and feel is the same. I left the thing lying around for over a week because I forgot about it and read a paper novel instead. I don’t forget paper novels, even when I want to (Dan Brown!).

I re-read one of my favourite books on the e-reader. I was completely unengaged. It was a shock. That is a book I read at least every couple of years because I love it so much, and every time it produces something new and interesting and beautiful I hadn’t noticed before. This time – nothing. I only knew how far through I was because I know the book so well. I had no real sense of progress while reading, no early heightened tension that I was nearing the end because the pages were running out, no feeling of achievement (not quite the word I want – perhaps commitment or solidarity with the writer?) as I looked back at pages read and a shared journey.

Immersing myself in a book is a complete and utter abandonment of the daily routine. I let go of the world around me and enter another, with all my heart and mind and even soul. It’s a risky business, opening a book. If you choose the wrong author they can scar you. It’s a drug, and you want to get the good stuff, not the stuff cut with something cheap and nasty and damaging, like the time we gave a friend a crumbled Oxo cube and told him it was top quality grass. He smoked it and told us it was really good shit, and couldn’t understand why we fell about laughing. Bless teenagers for their pranks. You don’t want an Oxo cube novel.

I’m sorry, dear little e-reader, I know you tried really hard. I do have some use for you, but it’s more restricted than either of us hoped. I still admire your sample chapters. I still like your text resizing when I am having an off-day. I appreciate being able to buy trashy novels really cheaply to fill my time, or download classic texts for nothing to enjoy. Let’s stay friends. Sadly you will never be able to replace my many shelves of dusty, crumbling books, some with pages yellowed and crumbling after only 40 years. You can’t replace my reference books yet, although one day one of your descendants will try.

Several years ago I read a book by Nicholas Negroponte about his vision of the future for technology and he talked about electronic newspapers. The e-readers we have don’t come close to what he recognised as essential – the feel and convenience of something you can roll up, fit into a pocket, that weighs almost nothing. My newspaper subscription is now cancelled. The thing doesn’t even update through the day. I was still reading the news websites to find out the latest on stories I was interested in. I now consume news on the go, and even an electronic newspaper fails to meet my learned expectation of instant gratification to know the latest regarding Richard III’s skeleton or the results of a by-election or the progress of snow from west to east. To be fair, that’s what “news” means.

I tried, my friends, I tried so hard to commit utterly and faithfully to my dear little e-reader. It was not its fault, it can only do what it can do, as can we all. Its limitations were built in and it performed mightily within them. We aren’t compatible for a full-time relationship, but I think we’ll keep in touch and spend the odd evening in each other’s company.

And in the end, is this the wisdom I have found? To work within the boundaries of what is, to work creatively and joyfully to find my way in reading to the fullest extent that I am able, and not to bemoan or begrudge what is not possible. I have choices I never used to have, and if the world does not meet my exacting expectations, then I can still obtain pleasure from what is around me. Those three or so shelves (maybe four, who’s counting?) are still waiting patiently for my time and attention, and it shall be theirs.

Namaste.

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4 thoughts on “The Reading Life

  1. I favour e-books but your post put me in mind of something: even if I carry around 1,000 pieces of literature, I can only read — really, truly read — one at a time. Hmm.

  2. The idea of all books looking the same – and worse, never changing, no matter how many times I’ve read them, no dog ears and yellowing pages – is one of the things that really puts me off e-books.

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