So I finally cracked and got an e-reader.
The trip out to southern Spain, this time by air and with luggage dominated mainly by soft toys and Fireman Sam paraphernalia, meant my permitted allocation of book space was slim to vanishing, and a blunt pragmatism did the rest. The Kindle Paperwhite 3G slides into a jacket hip pocket, takes up about as much space as two smartphones side by side, and has a carry capacity of 1400 books. Better yet, you can buy and pull down new books through the 3G network from pretty much anywhere in the world (well, anywhere I’m likely to be in the next couple of years, anyway) with about the same amount of fuss it takes to send an SMS text. Takes a couple of minutes max, really. For the record, I got Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, John Kay’s Obliquity and in honour of Iain Banks, a re-read copy of The Crow Road. Later, I maxed out on electronically-available Hurley via her two Kindle Singles short stories Afterbirth and The Seams Between The Stars, got myself up-to-date with Lawrence Block via his two latest Matt Scudder outings All The Flowers Are Dying and A Drop of the Hard Stuff, and followed up The Crow Road with Stonemouth. Currently reading Lavie Tidhar’s Osama.
(None of which stopped me buying Rupert Thomson’ Secrecy and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah in newly released and bulky trade paperback editions at the airport, though. Or Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides in a raffish second-hand book exchange in downtown Nerja. More on that later.)
So – a couple of months on, what’s the verdict? An e-reader convert? Am I Kindled – crackling and burning with enthusiasm for the form?
Here’s the thing. The Kindle is ultra convenient, easy to use, restful to read from, just as promised. It has adjustable text size at the tap of a screen, which, for someone just setting out on the sour, mid-life adventure of using reading glasses, is a bit of a blessing. It doesn’t need light to read by, it doesn’t need phone credit for download (Amazon pick up the 3G costs as part of the deal) and it doesn’t need re-charging very often. It’s a miracle of the modern age, no question.
But it isn’t a book.
You might be forgiven for thinking that’s pretty fucking obvious really, Richard, but if the last couple of months have been anything at all for me, they’ve been a belated rediscovery of the manifold pleasures of the reading experience – and that rediscovery has come, as often as not, via the absence or at least the weakness of some of those pleasures in the e-reading experience.
Thing is, this is the first time in the best part of two years that I’ve really had sufficient amounts of coinciding leisure and wakeful attentiveness to read purely for pleasure. Previously, these two commodities were pretty much completely separated – wakeful attentiveness was a scarce, desperately-hoarded resource, to be deployed on selfless primary matters like work, close parenting, driving, and any other household tasks too dangerous to address while dead on your feet; leisure, meanwhile, was an even scarcer blurred space in which to slump numbly in front of the PS3 or some HBO boxed sets and wonder whether you’d ever again not feel shattered at the end of a day. Want to know why there hasn’t been a Read and Rec’d entry for a couple of years? Now you know.
But I digress.
Coming back to reading was like breaking out of long celibacy. It was a sensual experience. I thrummed to the sheer forgotten excitement of getting caught up in (someone else’s) narrative and character again; the sheer Joy of Prose – lyrical sentences, well-honed descriptive phrases, stop-and-think insight – the sheer delight in sharp dialogue, tight observational humour, well-cranked plot tension, elegant deployment of narrative implication. The greedy physicality of hefting a good book and seeing how much you’ve still got left to enjoy, the sense of possession as you -
Ah. There’s the rub.
Or there’s where it’s starting to rub, anyway……..
You see, you can’t heft a Kindle – well, you can, but it feels a bit like hefting a pack of those Black and Decker sanding discs; you certainly can’t heft the particular book you’re reading on a Kindle, because that book doesn’t exist for you in any physical form. And I had to reformat to landscape, holding the Kindle on its side, before I could even approach the sensation of reading an actual book rather than some column article snipped out of a newspaper. In fact, if I had to summarise the problems I had with Kindling (and, I imagine, e-reading in general), I guess a total lack of physicality would pretty much cover it. And it turns out – who knew? it certainly took me by surprise – that reading is in many ways an intensely physical pleasure.
With an e-reader, you have no access to that physicality. You can’t do that momentary heft-and-measure-by-eye trick to see how much of the book you’ve read, how much you have left. You can’t leaf through the pages to the end of the chapter you’re on, to see if you should try to finish it or not before you turn in for the night/get out at your tube stop/make some dinner/finish your sandwich and go back to work. You can’t slap the book shut when it ends, sit back and sigh as that ending sinks in (far from it, in fact – the last page of a Kindle edition novel is invariably followed at once by a quite stunningly intrusive panel asking you to rate this book!! for the Kindle store, and then another page telling you if you liked this book, just check out these others by the same author!! Uhm, no. Fuck off. But again, I digress.) You can’t flip rapidly back through a Kindle edition book to check on previous narrative detail or – where non-fiction is concerned – previous points or examples given; you certainly can’t shuttle between two or three points in the book to hold a line of argument together in your head when distraction or tiredness has let it slip. You can’t skim the contents of a chapter as yet unread, skipping rapidly page to page, or go back and skim one you didn’t quite engage with.
You are simply not in possession of anything solid enough for these dynamics to work.
Now, to be fair, the makers of the Kindle are clearly aware of these needs and impulses in the reading population, and they’ve done their level best to provide decent alternatives. There’s a counter in the bottom right corner of the page, telling you what percentage of the book you’ve got through so far, and a time estimate in the bottom left, built on a clever little algorithm that monitors your reading speed and then works out how many minutes you should take to finish the chapter you’re on…..
But this, all this, is cerebral, people.
It’s a Dungeons and Dragons-style approximation via numbers of the physical experience you aren’t actually having. It’s not tactile, it’s not instinctive – it’s math. If I haven’t previously made sure to note (or cannot right now remember) how many pages a Kindle book has in total, the percentage doesn’t actually tell me anything very useful in human terms. You have read forty two percent of this book – but forty two percent of what? If I’ve never seen (or touched or hefted) the whole, what use is dividing it up for me into precision segments There are eight minutes remaining in this chapter. More useful, I suppose, but again, it feels (and is) calculating. And, well, we’re not computers, Sebastian, we’re physical. I don’t want to look at the minute counter, look at my watch and then add up the mathematical exigencies of my situation. I want to look at the gathered pages between my fingers and make an instinctive human choice (even if it’s the wrong one! and I stay up way too late finishing that chapter – because that too is so very human). The electronic substitute is a nice try, thanks, guys, but it fails me at some stubborn, visceral level.
Similarly, Kindle offers a neat little search function, where you can type in any word or phrase and blink directly to its location within the text – essentially an electronic index with all the added flexibility you’d expect of any early 21st century personal device. Added speed, incidentally, not so much; I compared the time it took me to type something into search and blink to the location with the time it took me to look something up in a physical index and then flip to that page and you know what – pretty much the same. Surprising just how swift and nimble we are with that million year test-bedded combo of fingers, eyes and brain. No, the chief benefit and advance of Kindle search, as far as I can see, is that it’s unlimited; it allows you to look up items a printed index might not even list; and of course printed fiction doesn’t bother with indexing at all. Cool. But.
What you can’t do with an e-reader is look up two or three items at the same time (or two or three page references for the same item), hold fingers in the relevant pages and flip casually back and forth. Nor can you easily flip back and forth around a single searched item and case its context over two or three pages, because it’s impossible to view more than one (rather truncated) Kindle page at the same time, and each time you select to read, you dump out the search function and have to summon it from scratch from the navigation bar. Sure, the effort to provide useful interface is being made, and with all the electronic and design muscle available, but once again it’s physical continuity that’s gone missing in action here. Same with page navigation. Your Kindle will let you go to any page (or – cue painfully seventies-SF sounding terminology – Location) in the book at the touch or two of a screen, and sure, that’s nice – but as any passionate reader will tell you, it’s not especially helpful from a human interface point of view. Unless you’re making actual academic notes and referencing them by page, your sense of where in the previously read portion of the book something lies is largely tactile and imagistic – Hey, didn’t he say the opposite to this about……yay far back? Couple of pages into chapter three, right? The bit where the battle starts. The page after the page with that wacky graph on it. So forth. Your navigation is intrinsically physical. You estimate and flip back, miss maybe, flip back and forth a bit more and yep, there it is!
Who, outside of a very diligent student, recalls Hey, he makes this argument from the other side at the bottom of page 237? Or – come in Alpha Commander 39 – at Location 6471?
Physicality, possession – now I remember. These are the joys of reading a printed book; you handle it like driving a geared car or cooking on a kick-ass gas range stove (always assuming you like to drive or cook, that is). The book is a tactile presence in your hands, it has weight and substance, it is yours – yours to discover like buried treasure (in raffish second-hand book exchanges for example, or, pristine and pencil-shaving scented, off the shelves of Waterstones or B&N); yours to have and to hold, to give as a gift (those two trade paperbacks I bought at the airport? Mother’s Day presents for my wife, albeit sneakily borrowed back after she was done), yours to lend, to peruse, to brood over. To hold up and smell, when new. To rack on a shelf and forget when old – and then trace your finger down the spine a couple of years later and take down once more, filled with memory of where and when and who……
So bin the Kindle, right? Sell it on eBay?
Whoah, not so fast. Hold your either/or absolutist horses.
Thing is, none of the above actually displaces the very real logistical benefits I mentioned earlier. The Kindle is a wondrous little machine. I’ll certainly go on using it when I travel, or when I just have to have a certain book and don’t have easy access to a bookshop that sells it or a rapid Amazon delivery. Is there reading pleasure to be had from a Kindle edition book? Absolutely. You read, you enjoy. But, for me at least, it remains a circumscribed pleasure compared to the unabridged physicality of reading a printed book. It’s a concession to other exigencies (like limited luggage space and lack of light and ease of access), a forced compromise. It’s convenience versus sensuous luxury, a quickie versus a night of passion, a cigarette break versus a weekend away.
E-reading is beef jerky.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like beef jerky rather a lot – it’s strongly flavoured, full of protein, satisfies a deeply-rooted carnivore itch in the hinge of my jaws, and it’s very, very user friendly when you’re traveling. There’s a great deal of eating pleasure to be derived from munching your way through a bag of the stuff.
But does it compare to a steak dinner by candle-light in a good French restaurant with friends?
Well, you tell me.