Thursday, March 21, 2013

Why I still don't think the Kindle will replace the book

It's been drawn to my attention that in 2008 I wrote a column claiming that Kindles wouldn't happen. I think my key point was that half the point of reading a book in public was so that other people could see what you were reading.

Leaving aside the fact that it would be a pretty poor column if I filled it with verifiable fact, I was clearly wrong, as many millions of Kindle sales will attest.

And yet.

I've got a Kindle and would recommend one to anyone who does a lot of reading for the simple reason that they speed up your reading. If I've got to read something in a hurry, they're the only way to go. They don't lose your place and - don't laugh - they don't require both hands to support them. You can read one standing up in a crowded carriage on the Tube or while eating cereal.

On the debit side they're shoddily produced, inadequately proof-read and often very hard to navigate. A friend the other day was arguing it was impossible to read Hilary Mantel on the Kindle because you needed to be consulting the cast of characters at the front of the book. (I read Wolf Hall as a book and Bring Up The Bodies via reading machine and I found the second one easier because I was reading it more often and therefore keeping to the thread.)

As far as authors are concerned e-books are a mixed blessing. They may increase your pool of readers but those readers won't be paying you very much money. That's why they'd rather sell you this nice autographed hardback.

In recent months when I haven't been commuting daily I've gone backwards, buying and reading more paper books than I did in the couple of years before that when I was first smitten with the Kindle.

I'm already operating a three-tier system. Some things I want as books. Other things I'm happy to read on Kindle. Some very special things I need to have on both.

I'm doing the same with music. Most things I'm happy going to Spotify for. If I really like them I want the CD. If I love them I have to search out a version on vinyl. It's like the difference between dating, going steady and marriage.


  1. Two points:

    First, you live in London, where quickly and relatively effortlessly locating a physical copy of pretty much any book that interests you is the norm. Even Amazon deliveries take three days or more for most people in most parts of the world, whereas you can start reading an e-book within a minute of first learning of its existence.

    Second, your tier system reminds me a bit of the way people used to poo-poo paperbacks in the Fifties and Sixties. They were for reading on Majorcan beaches and then sticking in the spare room, not placing on proud display on the bookshelves. I think the same thing will happen with e-books: their current low prestige will gradually but steadily fade away.

    [Captcha's getting more annoying than ever: it regularly takes me six or seven reloads before one I can even start to decipher comes up.]

  2. Don't use a Kindle, but do read a lot on the iPad. Have never taken to reading 'proper books' electronically I just find it hard to immerse myself in anything but a book - but what I really like is reading long-form articles drawn from places like the New Yorker, Brain Pickings, GQ (whose American edition seems to publish much more erudite stuff than I ever see in the UK edition at the barbers) and so on...

  3. Totally agree with this. We got a Kindle about a year ago expecting to stop buying paper books as a result, but instead are still buying paper over ebook by at least a 3-to-1 margin, and I think this is largely because ebook prices just doesn't seem like an adequate reward for the amount of effort that has gone into producing the actual text.

    As with music we have tragically devalued the value of the labour involved in producing good art with heft and meaning...

  4. "half the point of reading a book in public was so that other people could see what you were reading."

    The corollary to which, of course, was the success on Kindle of Fifty Shades of Gray.

    But one has also to ask, as with the books on display on the shelves in the background of portrait photos taken in somebody's home, about the pile of books (carefully?) chosen to illustrate a post such as this...

  5. As someone who's inveterately nosey, I miss seeing what other people are reading on public transport. How can I make my snap judgements of strangers now?

    While Kindles certainly enabled a lot of people to read Fifty Shades and other fare that they might be embarrassed to be seen reading in public, I wonder if it actually makes some books harder to become bestsellers?

    Just a few years ago, you couldn't move (in London anyway) for people reading paperbacks of One Day or The Da Vinci Code. Once you see the cover enough times, it at least piques your curiosity if you're not familiar with the title. Today, who knows what my neighbour is reading. Is it a trashy "beach" novel? Or is it Molliere? Who knows.

    Personally, as my flat attests, I still much prefer physical books over ebooks. But I am surprised that few organisations have yet to try to package "book and ebooks" together, the way many DVDs come with digital copies today.

    But what I've really noticed from looking at others reading on their Kindles, is what appalling eyesight many people have. They allow you to change the font size, and a lot of people seem to choose quite a large size. This is definitely a bonus for those with very poor vision, no longer having to seek out Large Print editions from their local library. I realise that I'm lucky to have pretty decent eyesight, but it feels to me that some people ought to be looking at getting reading glasses if they need their fonts quite so large. I sat opposite someone the other day who had the size so large, she barely got more than a single sentence on screen!

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  7. I'm sorry about Captcha, or whatever it's called, but the Spam comments were getting irritating.
    PK, you appear to be suggesting I'm a pseud. I can only say that that pile of books in the picture were beside the bed. The paradox of a pseud like me is that my pseudery is so thoroughgoing it barely qualifies as pseudery at all.

  8. I was loving reading books solely on the Kindle (or Kindle on iPad I should say), when the biggest drawback presented itself. I wanted my 8 year old boy to stumble on some books in the house, like I did at home. So I got some bookshelves put up and the old books came out of boxes. And the ones I read on the Kindle I had to get two copies of. Some authors are doing well out of that.

  9. I've never been able or had a yen to read in public. How on earth do you people sat in coffee shops and cafes maintain your attention upon the book and not the things around you?

    I don't dismiss e-books - a friend is quite taken with the whizz-bangery of his i-books.

    For now though my home really is furnished with my books and I do love a chapter or two of a 'doorstop', propped up in bed, before lights out.

  10. I've reached the point where I don't want to have old-fashioned books in the house .. since I got my Kindle they have started to feel like a cheap second-best, a bit like web pages printed out onto A4.

    The only exception are 'coffee-table' books with photography rendered onto glossy paper. Technology will render those obsolete too, soon. In the meantime I've been upgrading my ordinary books to Kindle, in the same way I used to upgrade my vinyl to CD.

    e-books are dramatically more convenient. You can take hundreds of them on holiday. They won't go grubby or tear. You can keep copies in the Amzon cloud for free, so you can read them on a computer anywhere, without having to have your Kindle with you.

    I just can't see a credible defence for the old-fashioned book.

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  12. Anonymous5:11 pm

    I have a house full of books. I'm aware I buy more than I need, but it's a classic overfulfilment: my parents were loving but too poor to buy many books, so I've always made sure my kids have the books they want. Mostly they're second-hand, but we enjoy our jumble-sale and charity-shop rummages.

    I've nothing against the Kindle and its kind, and I'm slowly chugging my way back through The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists again on the iPhone app Books, but I much prefer the analogue artefact. I look at screens all day and by winding-down time I'd rather my brain be soothed than bombarded. (For the same reason, while reading in the late evening I'd rather put on a well-loved vinyl LP than a What-Next? shuffle playlist.)

  13. I just finished a book that I chose because it featured more than any other in the critics and readers choice "books of the year" 2012 lists in Guardian/Observer/Economist/Prospect. And because I had not heard of it until then.

    It is "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo. It is fantastic whether you read it old style or e-book.