Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Kindles vs "Real Books" or: Can't We Just All Stop Fighting?

Since the launch of the e-reader the previously unobtrusive word 'kindle' has become a sensitive subject for many book lovers. Even mention the word in a suitably literary circle and you're almost guaranteed a disapproving sniff. And by literary circle I'm not talking about a modern day Bloomsbury set or even a group of tweed jacketed, leather elbowed professor types. I'm talking about literature students in their early twenties. Normal people who read normal books (if there is such a thing) and are not even remotely pretentious in their choice of reading material. So why when the subject of e-readers comes up do so many of us get sneering and/or sentimental?

I'll admit, I did not think I needed a kindle when I got one. If someone hadn't bought me one I would probably not have bothered. Who wants to pay full price for a digital book after all? But there's a lot on kindle which is either free, heavily discounted or priced very cheaply because an author is trying to make a name for themselves. 

~A Necessary Interlude:~
The Great Self Publishing Debate

I do not care if you think online self publishing is "ruining the industry". I do not care if you think that traditional publishing is a scam and you can do a better job of publishing your book from your living room with a cover you designed yourself in MS Paint* than someone whose entire career is built around publishing. It's impossible to tell what the future of the publishing industry so if anyone tells you they know it then politely suggest they check their crystal ball for cracks. 

Apart from that brief disclaimer I'm not touching the whole debate again.

~Back to the blog~

I'm not going to collect some of the more baffling charges against e-readers for your edification/enjoyment. 

"Kindles are a rip off"

There are many heavily reduced or even free books on kindle and while not all of them are good, some of them really are. For example I just bought The Life of Pi for 20p. 20p! That's the price of a Freddo!

"Kindle books have low production values"

Lower? Maybe in some cases: anyone can theoretically publish an ebook after all. Low across the board? No. 

I won't lie and say that every single kindle book I've ever read has been perfectly formatted but there's a massive gap between the occasional typo or missing space and the hotbed of of bad grammar and non standardised spelling critics of the kindle tend to imagine. Also this argument is entirely moot when you realise how many print books have a digital version, which is spell checked and formatted just as carefully as the print one. 

"Old books smell nice."

Yeah, if you dust them regularly. If you don't then they tend to smell a bit stale and musty. Buy some scented candles or something. 

"But there's just something nice about paper books, you know?"

As a student I have moved house six times in the past four years. Every time I've done this I've been restricted to what I can fit in the back of my parent's car. Moving out of my last place was such a deeply traumatic experience that for a month my dreams were all about rushing through the empty house like a rat in a maze, trying to find that last thing I hadn't packed. The three and a half boxes of books I brought home did not help with this process. The two carrier bags of books I gave away to friends, charities and book exchanges did. 

Young people are becoming more nomadic: living out of dorm rooms, childhood bedrooms and/or flats too small for a decent book case. There are three book cases in my childhood bedroom, all of which are overflowing, despite the fact I took a full crate to my tiny dorm room. The 'thing' about paper books in this scenario is a disturbing tendency to get in the way, gather dust and possibly bury you in a papery avalanche. If you have a big house with ample shelf space then good for you. If you are willing to live in a house swimming with books then I admire your dedication. But please don't assume that everyone else is in the same situation as you are. 

"Kindles are cold dead electronics"

Umm... print books aren't alive. I mean, not anymore. If I was going to get pernickity I could wonder how many e-books you have to buy before the environmental impact of making the e-reader is cancelled out by the living trees cut down to produce those paper books**. But I'm in a generous mood (and also it sounds complicated) so let's just agree that ink and paper are no more alive than circuit boards and plastic and leave it at that, shall we?

"Kindles aren't real books"

But what makes a book? Is it ink and paper or is it ideas? An e-book can make you think or feel just as much and intensely as a paper book can: the words are the same after all. An e-reader by your bedside is as good for passing a sleepless night as a paper book (or indeed a stack of them). A digital book is just as good to read on the beach as a paper one and I can guarantee you'll fit more e-books in a suitcase. A I wouldn't mind if people were rejecting kindles on a purely aesthetic basis but they always seem to be the same people who talk about the value of ideas and imagination. Ideas and imagination are, by definition, not confined to the printed page. Digital publishing is an imaginative and innovative industry. And no, not everybody who does it well but at least if gives books which are too strange, or too unfashionable, or too political for traditional publishing a chance to be read and enjoyed. 

And no, not all of them will be good. But unless you're willing to add Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey and their ilk into the literary Canon then at some point you're going to have to admit that not everything that is published is necessarily good, either. I have Shakespeare's Complete Works on my kindle. QED.

~Some Closing Remarks~

I'm not writing any of this because I hate print books. If public opinion switched in favour of e-readers I'd probably step in to point out that many people do have a preference for print books and that's their business, no need to be disparaging about it. I myself will pay more for a physical object than a PDF. 

This post is being written partly because I like tilting at windmills but also because I think that there is something fundamentally Not Okay about turning reading, which enriches so many people's lives and is deeply personal and subjective, into a competition. If you like print books: fine. If you prefer an e-reader: fine. If (like most people who own an e-reader) you use a mixture of both: also fine. As long as you're benefiting from the words who cares if you're reading them off a page or a screen?

*I have a friend who can do amazing things in MS Paint: on reflection I think this may be some kind of super power. But I digress.
**Of course, if you buy your books second hand this doesn't apply to you. 


  1. You are absolutely right. The discussion does not serve to do anything but make people read people talking about it rather than actually reading books. Even publishers are pretty much ignoring this debate now, the vast majority of new authors are being picked up for traditional publishing deals due to good ebook sales.

    The solution of course is to ***one of many stacks of books in his room falls and crushes Peter before he can finish the sentence***

    (but for reals: Put a code to get an eBook copy in the back of every physical copy. Not just on one or two books but on every book. Don’t make me choose but give me choice.)

    P.S. They should put that on the back of the book “Life of Pie, Cheaper than a Feddo” (But only caramel Freddos, the plain chocolate ones are horrible)

    1. I always liked both. By which I mean both kinds of Freddos obviously: I had my 'change scares me I don't like it!!!' phase like everyone else when kindles first started being a thing.