With the dramatic rise to prominence of the Kindle, and with software such as iBooks and Stanza now close at hand in our digital age, are we to admit that we are turning over the page to the final chapter for books? Here are some very interesting ideas to consider regarding this topical debate.

Interesting ideas about the Kindle

I have tried to use a Kindle in the past and have found it immensely frustrating not to be able to write on what I am reading when I come to something particularly important or interesting. I like to write in my books and although it is possible with an eReader to highlight an area of text and save it to your profile, in my view this will never beat pencil on paper. Moreover, when I am reading a book, be it a novel, play or poem, I am constantly aware of how far through the work I am at a particular moment. This sense of progression is emulated to a certain extent with digital books, in that there is a percentage in the top right hand corner of the screen, but this once again does not live up to scratch. To say that I am 19% through a book does not have the sense of personal interaction with a text as a general feel of the printed pages and it makes it seem like a goal to finish – to get to 100%. I do not want to conquer the book; I want to engage with it.

eBooks vs the printed word

The Internet is full of uploads and downloads with these percentages, and the only thing on our mind when we see these numbers is to get it over and done with so that we can concentrate on the rest. I don’t need to know that I am 19% of the way through; just a rough and non-numerical indication of how far through the text I am. When reading a novel (say you’re on page 156, for instance), you know that before you (I envisage a picture of the words being contained further left than the left-hand page you are reading, always accessible), you can find the words you have just read. They are always there and you can flick back to them whenever you wish to clarify something or jog your memory. But with an eReader there is no sense of this continuous trail coming in from the left (outside of the page) and arriving at the sentence you are on. When I turn a page on an eReader I do not feel as though I am progressing and following the story. Every word is captured within this Kindle and I get the impression that each page is in effect a superposition of one onto the other, rather than an actual movement (although of course the book is not actually in motion) from left to right.

Do we read ‘better’ with eBook readers?

Whilst I appreciate that eReaders allow us to take a library of books with us on the go at once, I am critical of whether this is useful or helpful. Even on holiday, I only need to take a maximum of about 3 or 4 books with me at one time, which whilst taking up more space than one sole Kindle is not a great burden to bear. I would bet that the vast majority of Kindle readers right now on the go will read no more than one book between the time they leave their home and the time they return to it. Once again, we arrive at the issue of reading too quickly or too superficially. When we have a whole library of books in our hand, we want to get through as many as possible in the shortest space of time.

Interesting ideas about eReaders

If I go out with one book and I finish it whilst out, I will reread certain passages or I will reflect on what I have read before launching into another fictional world. In my opinion, many eReader users finish a book and then move on to the next one without much time for pensive contemplation or rigorous analysis. Of course, the experience of reading can be purely hedonistic, and I am not condemning those who read without being critical of the text before them, but it strikes me that the wealth of textual material available to devour on a Kindle leads readers to neglect their capacity for profound examination of a single one.

Observations on life: digital books vs printed books

On the other hand, we must accept that there are some major advantages of the Kindle over a physical book. Although it is not as easy as it could be right at the moment, given time it will become incredibly straightforward to look up a glossary or an index which will be fantastic for reference books and textbooks. Yet I simply cannot envisage a time, even in decades and decades, when there will be no books. Digital books have their uses, but I cannot imagine a new publication not being printed as a physical book. As Alan Bennett notes in The Uncommon Reader, writing from the mindset of the Queen who has stumbled into a library and discovered the joys of reading: “Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included.” But digital books really do care. Books on Kindles are packed with ratings, percentages, figures, comments, reviews. In contrast, whilst might get a price tag on the back of a novel, but we soon scratch that off and we are on our way.

Conclusions to the debate

Many people may well prefer eReaders, but there will always be a large number who will stick to physical books. It is without a doubt a challenge to their authority, but this is not the death of books. It’s not even their final chapter. Books will prevail and will not be overcome. They may not actually care ‘who (is) reading them or whether one read(s) them or not”, but they will continue to be read, over and over again, by readers who, despite the advancements of the digital age, simply prefer the organic experience of meeting a printed book with whose experiences s/he can suffer, communicate, and interact.

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