Thursday, 11 April 2019

E-Books versus Real Books*

Photos courtesy Flickr

Not a new debate by any stretch of the imagination but one that has been waging a war in my head and my heart for, digitally, ages. I’m going over old ground here to a certain extent but it helps to clarify things in my head.

Let’s examine the benefits of e-books and e-readers. Space; If all my physical books were stored on an e-reader I could take in lodgers with the space that action would free up!! Travel: no more need to fill up a suitcase with enough books to keep you going for a fortnight away. Carry them all in one place. Convenience; just whip it out of your bag wherever you are and carry on reading where you left off. Immediacy; fancy a book? Get it right away and start reading, no trips to the bookshop or library, no waiting in for the postman. Physically challenged; e-readers weigh very little, no strain on wrists, arms and shoulders. Environmentally friendly; no paper harmed in the downloading of the book. 

So why do I loathe them so much? I love physical books. I love the smell, particularly of a brand new paperback. I like the feel in my hands, the weight feels substantial, worthwhile, satisfying.  I love my books arranged around my study. I feel safe and comfortable being surrounded by books. I feel rich, privileged, when I scan all the titles. I feel less alone, surrounded by ‘friends’. I love carrying a book around with me, from room to room, place to place so if there’s an opportunity to read I can. I often refer back in a book to check something, particularly if I’m reviewing, I like to find and re read an especially evocative passage, investigate maps and family trees. I like to mark the place with a book mark. When review copies arrive I still get a thrill. I never take it for granted. I feel warm and I feel affluent. I never get that frisson when I receive an ebook. 

So do I love reading? Or do I love books?  Emotionally, I want to say that it’s reading I love. But if I really, truly love reading should it matter how I read? It has become a cliche for people to say they are so passionate about reading they will read a cereal packet rather than not read. And I have done that myself. So why not an e-reader? It bothers me. Maybe I’m not a reader at all. Maybe I am only a collector of books. But I’m not happy with that. It doesn’t feel right to say it. And I don’t believe it!!

This sounds perverse but I DO read differently when I read an ebook compared to a real book. I had a book to review and I was sent the ebook. I was reading it and not especially enjoying it, it was okay but I wasn’t blown away. Then I got a print copy and the whole novel was elevated and I ended up loving the book. Rationally that does not make sense, I know. It has to be in my head? I get a sinking feeling in my stomach if I’ve agreed to review a book and I’m told there are no physical copies just electronic ones. 

The only consolation I can think of is that, conversely, there are people within my circle who will only read on an e-reader. And those same people will describe themselves as readers, loving reading. I can throw my conundrum back at them, if they were really readers and really loved reading they would read real books too.

There is no answer, I guess. And maybe there doesn’t need to be. Suffice to say that if Fahrenheit 451 became a reality I would turn to an e-reader if that was the only way I could read. That’s the bottom line. If there were no physical books I would embrace the e reader. For without reading there is nothing. And maybe that is an answer in itself?

*edited article which originally appeared on Nudge/NB's old website

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