Recently it was Library and Information week at my library. I recalled that the previous year I had co-presented information sessions showing people how to use e-readers. The sessions were popular, as they were this year. Since last year I’ve noticed that e-reader use has increased amongst my fellow train commuters and with library patrons. With bookstore chains such as Borders collapsing (mainly due to online commerce?) and with talk of the possible demise of the book in the media I wonder what we may gain or more importantly what we may lose if e-readers become the medium of choice for publishers and readers alike.
The main thing I took away from presenting the information sessions about e-readers is that I didn’t like them. Some people I know may roll their eyes due to the fact that I don’t even own a mobile phone – but I’m no Luddite. I can understand the convenience of being able to store hundreds of books on one device. They solve the problems of lugging books away with you on holiday, or having to find room to store books you’ve bought over the years. Another advantage is if you need to read a large print version you can just increase the font size, whilst in the book world you need to wait until the large print version is released. Downloading books is also cheaper and saves you time because you don’t have to go to a shop.
There are disadvantages of course. The e-reader can break down and if the data is not backed up then you’ve just lost your collection. I’ve also been told, from a library patron, the tale of a woman who took an e-reader with her on holiday to Bali and the screen failed, leaving her with nothing to read.
Although these are valid issues, my views regarding e-readers are not particularly concerned with their inherent problems, but rather the potential demise of the overall experience that books provide. For a start I don’t like the idea of everything I read looking the same. E-readers are, at the moment, banal looking objects. I love the variety that books offer – the cover artwork, their size, shape, feel and smell. I love the way these objects look on my bookshelf, or scattered about my home. In this way they become a part of your life, reminding you of what you have read and also holding the promise of what you may read next.
A collection of books at home and the books on the shelves in a bookstore offer a sublime sensory experience. Quite simply there is no romance or adventure to be had from e-readers. You can’t book cross with an e-reader and you can’t lend a well-loved and battered old copy of a novel to a friend via an e-reader. You can’t go in search of a first edition copy of your favourite novel with that special cover art or author’s signature – it becomes meaningless in the e-reader world.
I guess what I’m getting at is that e-readers devalue the cultural impact of books. Do we want to live in a world in which books are reduced to data and displayed as pixels on the bland screens of e-readers? In the rush of progress important cultural artifacts can be swept away and almost forgotten about. A good analogy is when compact discs became the principal medium for recorded sound. We gained convenience and a clean sound but lost all the natural warmth and presence that vinyl records provided.
I believe that books will survive the rush towards the digital medium. Vinyl records have survived and over the last twenty years sales have increased steadily. The same situation may come to pass with books. Apparently the recent hardcover book release of Murakami’s novel 1Q84 sold in huge quantities. The allure of a great writer published in a quality format is an indication that there will always be a market for books. Independent bookstores that offer quality books can survive and if you want to experience that special feeling of browsing shelves of books for your next read, you will still be able to indulge yourself.
So, what do you think - e-readers or books? Will books survive or will e-readers become ubiquitous on the morning train to work?