What’s the matter with e-books?

by The Book Consultancy on August 17, 2012

Nothing, is the simple answer.

As has been argued throughout history, it’s not the technology that’s at fault – it’s the uses to which people put that technology that causes the harm. As members of the NRA Are Kindle sales a smoking gun?never tire of saying, it’s not the gun that kills, it’s the person who pulls the trigger. However, as always, nothing is ever quite as straightforward as that…

In an interesting letter to The Guardian newspaper on 13th August 2012, David Robson of Otley, West Yorkshire, explores just what is lost through the use of e-books as against physical books – not just the experience of e-books as against paper books, but also ‘the whole reading ecosystem that each format supports’. Mr Robson rightly draws attention to the fact that paper books remain both visible and transferrable at all times, whereas e-books cannot be seen except in the virtual ‘library’ of the licensee (another difference, the purchaser of an e-book buys a license to a download, rather than a physical object which they then own outright). Does this actually matter? Yes and no. To those of us brought up with print books, taught to value and cherish them, who look along a bookshelf and remember each volume as identified with a particular moment, a particular experience in the past, then the loss of those physical objects would seem an impoverishment, as though we were turning away from friends. But who can say what will be the memory triggers and textual relationships which our digital descendants will respond to? Different doesn’t necessarily mean worse.

Printing pressAre we in danger of being like grumpy monks in the age of Gutenberg? Imagine how irritating it must have been, when you had spent a lifetime perfecting the art of slowly and painstakingly creating illuminated manuscripts, grinding the pigments, cutting the quills, rubbing down the vellum, to have some upstart mechanic and run off in a day what it might have taken you a year to write by hand. How certain the monks and those who were fortunate enough to own a book or two must have been that these cheap, chunky, machine-made products could never provide the same richness of experience that the hand-made manuscripts so manifestly offered.

There are valid questions to be asked, though, it seems to me, about the physical act of reading on screen and on paper, and the learning involved in looking, holding, marking, and note-taking.

These are questions I will be exploring in greater detail in the next blog.

Until then, happy reading, in every available format…

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