Books and e-books, again

In an editorial for the Independent, Johann Hari laments the decline in ‘physical’ books and the progression towards a more digital age. It’s the usual kind of thing we’re used to seeing. A “nothing can beat a good book – nothing, you hear me?” kind of thing. It’s the sort of thing we’re used to hearing from 70 year old luddites. Except Johann Hari is only 32 years old. He’s never known a world without colour TV, without videogames, without all sorts of gadgets. So the whole piece is a little strange from that point of view. From another point of view – the point of view of being a well-reasoned argument – it’s a complete shambles.

Hari begins with a reference to Gary Steynghart’s Super Sad True Love Story, in which everyone is “obsessed with their electronic Apparat – an even more omnivorous i-Phone with a flickering stream of shopping and reality shows and porn”. I know it’s hard, but look past his hyphenating of ‘iPhone’ (on his website, he also refers to ‘i-Tunes’ - nnngggg), and you’ll see an implicit association of technology with consumerism and porn. Never mind global connectedness, a wealth of knowledge and a truly democratic press; this is really all the internet has given us: an easier way to buy Kleenex for all the porn we’re watching.

At least he gives us an idea of what we’re dealing with here.

He talks about moving house and hauling all the books, comparing it to the audiophiles still jealously clinging to their vinyl while most other people have moved onto MP3s. “Does it matter?” he asks. “What was really lost?” I had to re-read the entire article a couple of times before I realised this wasn’t a rhetorical question. He actually thinks he’s answered it by suggesting that there’s a lot more to be lost as books move towards digital formats. Now, I’m no audiophile, but I’ll just say this: hogwash.

As a very happy Kindle customer, I can say that my reading habits have changed completely since getting the magical little device. I’m reading more than ever before. I’m consuming books at a rate I never would have believed I was capable of.

But not only that, the Kindle has completely changed my attitude towards books. I used to love buying books. I used to hoard them, fetishise them. Living in a different country, English-language books become things to be treasured. When you even find something simple, like an Agatha Christie, you hold onto it because God knows when you’ll find something like it again.

The Kindle has taught me that almost all of the things I read, the physical book itself – the delivery mechanism – isn’t important, the writing is. And I can read that in whatever format I want, it’ll still be the same. Whether this is smoke signals, semaphore, a dead-tree book or e-ink, they’re the same words and they have the same meaning. The only difference between all of these methods is that when I’m finished with a physical book, I’m left with something that will go back on my shelf, probably never to be touched again. Imagine after making your dinner, you went and put the empty packet back on the shelf. Same thing.

This isn’t true of all books though, and I still fetishise certain books, but mainly the ones whose physicality is intrinsic to their story and experience. For example, I recently bought Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, which won a prize in Germany as ‘most beautiful book of the year’. In fact, fire up its Amazon page and see how many times it’s described as ‘beautiful’. Seriously, it’s a gorgeous book and one that couldn’t be replicated in today’s technology. Maybe someday down the line it will and then I’ll discard my physical copy, just like the 100-something other books I got rid of after getting my Kindle.

Of course, Hari is afraid of the Kindle.

The more they become interactive and linked, the more they multitask and offer a hundred different functions, the less they will be able to preserve the aspects of the book that we actually need. An e-book reader that does a lot will not, in the end, be a book.

I understand my Kindle can do a lot. It’s got built-in 3G, so I can browse the internet, check my email, update my Twitter. All from anywhere in the world. Except I don’t. I use the 3G to grab the books Amazon sends to it. I use the Kindle for reading books and the occasional long article. That’s it.

But by Hari’s definition, a book also does a lot of things that are distinctly un-book-like. For example, it can be a colouring book for when I really need to unleash my creative juices. It can be a prop for when I need it to raise the height of my monitor (thanks, Programming Python and Essential Systems Administration!). It can be an emergency Kleenex substitute for when I’ve wiped myself out from all the porn on my ‘i-Phone’.

The point is, it’s none of these things for me. It’s just something to read. It’s a book. Just as the Kindle may be able to do a lot of things, but to me, it’s just something to read. It’s a book.

Hari ends his article by lauding Freedom, a piece of software that disconnects you from the internet for a set period of time. In other words, he associates his computer with lots of different things – email, Facebook, Twitter, funny cat videos and, yes, writing – and the only way he cannot be distracted is if he forcibly removes his access to all these distractions. For him, a book is the same thing: a forcible removal from all the distractions a Kindle could possibly present.

A ‘digital diet’ is a strange answer, Johann. If you’ve got self-control enough to detach yourself from your digital devices, why not apply that same self-control to all the bells and whistles that keep you from enjoying digital books.

Come on in, the water’s fine.