It’s finally summer. The days of semi-decent English weather, inevitable penalty shoot-out disappointment, and people photographing stacks of holiday reading and putting the pictures on social media. In recent years, I’ve felt two things about these photos: 1. Envy at the number of books people without small children can read on holiday and 2. Surprise at their choice of format. So last week on Twitter, I asked the following question:
I expected two responses to this tweet: 1. “You’re right of course” and 2. “I simply prefer reading physical books and consider that worth the extra suitcase space”. I did get some responses of both types, and both are perfectly sensible responses (the first one especially!) But I also got others that I found more puzzling and worthy of discussion.
All the things that could go wrong
I’ll deal with this one quickly – coincidentally, it is the title of the novel that my older child is reading on his Kindle right now…
Quite a few responses to my tweet focused on the potential pitfalls of taking a Kindle on holiday. Main dire scenarios predicted were: 1. Kindle breaking 2. Kindle getting lost 3. Kindle falling in the pool 4. Kindle overheating and 5. Foreign WiFi failure.
These are all valid concerns which make the fundamental error of assuming that I am the sort of person who would put all my holiday reading eggs into one device basket. In our household, we have two Kindle Paperwhites, one third generation Kindle, one Fire, two iPads and three phones with the Kindle app on them. I love the idea of carefree Jenny, who confidently slings one device into her hand luggage in a relaxed fashion, assuming it’s bound to be fine; I am so far from being that person that it is laughable.
Whilst I don’t have any hard data to back this up, I would bet that the risk of a Kindle breaking on holiday, even if you only have one, is statistically smaller than the risk of the few print books you take on holiday turning out to be disappointing and your being trapped on a small island with no means of buying something better. A fate too terrible to contemplate.
Guilt by association
A predominant response from publishing industry people to the question in my tweet was: ‘I associate my Kindle with work, print books are for pleasure’. This used to be my own position on e-readers (particularly in Sony e-reader days of yore) and so I do understand it. I tended to use an e-reader for reading manuscripts on submission, and obviously a significantly higher percentage of submissions read by editors are disappointing than are brilliant, and therefore I came to associate my Kindle with disappointing submissions. When I was relaxing, I wanted to read a paper book.
Two things changed this for me:
1. I started reading the books I loved on my Kindle too, and the more of these I read, the more the association shifted.
2. In terms of submissions, I became better at recognising publishable from unpublishable books more quickly and therefore even the work reading I was doing on my Kindle became heavily weighted towards good and exciting submissions over bad and disappointing ones. So even the work reading shifted positively.
Now that I have broken the ‘print books = pleasure” association, I find it hard to go back in the other direction. Because I now associate my Kindle with reading enjoyment, and because it is the main object I associate with relaxation, I find the practical inconveniences of a print book, and a hardback especially, pointless.
My theory on this is that it doesn’t and wouldn’t take much to shift any keen reader in either direction. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai – a book which I loved and have written about at greater length here – I read in hardback because a friend sent it to me in hardback. I spent the first few chapters thinking ‘how annoying – a hardback. It hurts my hands reading it in bed and makes my handbag heavy’. After that point, I became so absorbed in the book itself that I stopped even thinking of it as a hardback and when I saw it I didn’t think ‘a hardback, how annoying’, I thought ‘brilliant book, want to pick it up again’.
I prefer not to read on my phone, unless I have no other option. This is because I associate my phone with email, whatsapp, social media and various other ways in which people can ask me to do stuff. But when I asked a friend who reads novels on his phone what he likes about it, he gave all the same answers I would give about my Kindle: ease, convenience and most crucially of all for me, he said: ‘I guess I’ve come to like my phone library in the way others like books arranged on shelves around the room’. This is how I feel about my Kindle library, and whilst I can fully understand why readers love a room full of print books – because I still love one too – print readers conversely seem to find it harder to understand why I love an e-reader library full of books, or why someone might love a phone library full of books.
What is a book?
Genuine question. What do you consider to be a book? The responses to my tweet which intrigued and surprised me most of all were those which, in making the case for print over e, used the words ‘real books’ (‘real’ in this context being synonymous with print) or in some cases even just said ‘I don’t read ebooks because I love books’. As though what I am reading and enjoying on an e-reader is… an opera. Or a fish.
The ‘book’ in the form so many people consider to be ‘real’ and their favoured format (i.e. the current mass market paperback) is something that has existed for less than a century – a mere speck of human experience when placed alongside the whole history of words and storytelling. Is The Iliad not a proper book because it wasn’t originally printed at Clays in B-format paperback and purchased at Athens Waterstones? Are the books memorised by the characters in Ray Bradbury’s dystopia Fahrenheit 451 ‘real books’ or – devoid of their paper form – do they cease to have value?
Without wanting to minimise the packaging and printing achievements of my own brilliant industry, arguments which place format over words in the consideration of what is ‘real’ devalue the most important thing of all: the author and what that author has to say. It is reminiscent of the original vinyl vs CDs debate from back in the day. Yes, you can sit there endlessly debating whether a slightly crackly version of Abbey Road is better than a cleaner but less ‘rounded’ sound; ultimately you will realise that the whole conversation is mad, and that the only thing that matters is the songs.
Some responses to my tweet extended the ‘real books’ point to ‘real bookshops’ and ‘real businesses’. I love bookshops, I love spending time in them, I still use them a lot (admittedly more for buying gifts now than for myself). But to pretend that online retailers are not ‘real bookshops’ or ‘real businesses’, or indeed that they don’t present a different kind of joyful consumer experience, is nothing but head-in-the-sand denial. It assumes that your own form of reading that you like and happen to have got used to right now is the only way forever, and knowing what we know about human progress: how likely is that really?
I love my Kindle. Does that mean I won’t, thanks to some technological or other development in ten years’ time, move to reading on some other device that hasn’t even yet been invented? No, it doesn’t. All that is solid melts into air, as Karl Marx once wrote after someone accidentally dropped his book onto the holiday barbecue.
10 reasons why (I love my Kindle)
Finally, for what it’s worth, here are my own reasons why I love reading on a Kindle. For clarity I should say that my love of digital reading long preceded my professional move to digital publishing, so these are my reader thoughts, not my publisher thoughts.
1. Instant access. If I had to rank my reasons for loving ebooks, this would rank at number one. I can buy any book at the precise moment I want it, and start reading it immediately. Even Amazon Prime cannot compete with that for print books (though I’m sure it won’t be long before a drone can fling a paperback through your window within an hour of your placing an order…)
2. Reading in the dark. And this is number two. I cannot go to sleep without reading in bed first. Therefore if I go out and come home and my husband is already in bed with the light out, I can read in bed without disturbing him.
3. Ergonomics. I reckon this one is indisputable. E-readers are lighter, easier on your hands, easier to read in bed, easier on your neck, easier on your back in your handbag, easier to read on a sun lounger on holiday. You don’t even need to be holding the book to be reading it.
4. It’s not a screen! ‘I can’t bear to look at another screen’ is a common reason for preferring print books. An e-reader screen is not like a computer screen or a tablet screen or a phone screen, and nor does it have the potential for interruptions those other devices have because it doesn’t contain your email/whatsapp/social media/Spotify/news/other online distraction of choice.
5. Feeding a baby. A bit of a niche one, this, but it transformed my second maternity leave. The ability to read a book whilst feeding a baby – and, referring back to my earlier point, the ability to feed a baby in the night without turning the light on, should you be Gina-Fordishly inclined – is revolutionary. Amongst all the lies women are told about what will happen to them when they have a baby, the fact that they will never read a book again is up there at the top. But e-readers make it that little bit easier to do so more quickly.
6. Browsing and sampling. I love browsing in bookshops, but I also, in a different way, love shopping for books online. In a bookshop, all I have to go on is the blurb on the back of a book plus anything I might have heard about it. As I am a publisher, I AM WISE TO YOUR BLURB WRITING TRICKS, OTHER PUBLISHERS – and sadly, a good blurb and some artfully-chosen quotes alone are not going to be sufficient to sell to me. I want reader reviews, I want press reviews, I want to read a sample chapter at my leisure and I’m very specifically addicted to checking a book’s 3-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, as I have a firm belief that these give you the best idea of a book’s relative strengths and weaknesses. This is the topic for a whole other post, so I won’t elaborate for now…
7. Moving house. This could be the single strongest argument for digital publishing. Last time I moved house, I thought that digital publishers were missing a trick by not advertising on the side of Pickfords vans. Nothing makes you think ‘why do I have 300 dusty books I’m never going to read again?’ like having to move, unpack and dust them all.
8. A digital book can be in more than one place at once. I now find it irritating, when I am reading a paper book, that it is only in the place it is in. If I am downstairs and want to read it, I have to go upstairs and actually get the thing, rather than just picking up whichever device is closest to hand and syncing it. Who has time for that? It eats into vital reading time, I tell you.
9. Stats. Of course, you can work out what percentage of a printed book you have read using a quick bit of mental maths, and you can work out how long it takes you to read a book by timing yourself, but again – who has the time? I like to know that I have exactly 45 minutes left in my book so I can finish it on my way to work. Because I am geeky and sad.
10. Suitcase space, handbag space, house space. Which brings me back to my original tweet that kicked this all off. Whatever you need or want to take on holiday – shoes, clothes, nappies, toys, ski gear, water sports equipment – there is just no need to fill half a suitcase with books when you can fit a thousand books on a device smaller than just one of them.
But the gods of hubris will almost certainly punish me for writing this post by breaking my Kindle on holiday, so I hope you enjoyed reading it.