On my last visit to Waterstones I noticed something that I’d never come across before in a book shop – an advertisement for electronic book readers, those oddities that apparently let you read books on a relatively gargantuan iPod-esque device. Though perhaps this wasn’t hugely odd in itself, it later struck me as peculiarly counter productive for a shop that deals with the physical object known as ‘book’ to be plugging something that renders such physicality unnecessary.
Admittedly, I hadn’t given much thought to eBook technology before, besides dismissing it as a surplus gizmo that was expensive and pointless, and a brief scan of the World Wide Web only served to reinforce my initial inkling. A brand new eBook reader capable of storing around one hundred and sixty eBooks will set you back near two hundred pounds; a seemingly silly investment when you could instead be spending that money on thirty books, if not more. And a quick dash to an online store confirmed my suspicion that the most popular eBooks (the Twilight series – let’s not get into that) were the same price as their physical counterparts, eliminating the one virtue I could think of, that with eBooks you could in theory eventually be saving money.
Recent news also fail to offer good publicity for the eBook phenomenon. Amazon was left red faced after they discovered they had accidentally put some legally unauthorised eBooks up for sale. Those unfortunate enough to purchase them beforehand and download them to their readers suddenly realised they had the books in question deleted without warning; surely quite the annoyance while halfway through Nineteen Eighty-Four!
But are these dismissals unfair? After all, 20 years ago we would have consulted the map in the glove compartment while marooned up the motorway rather than consult Sandra Sat-Nav, and bought our albums in HMV rather than download them on iTunes. Granted these are by no means fault-free either, after all it’s possible to lose music downloaded from iTunes if it isn’t backed up and anyone who has been overly-dependent on Satellite Navigation on a long journey can testify how bewilderingly useless it can become. But by and large these are innovations we have embraced, and surely now in 2009 if these novelties were suddenly wrenched away many of us would feel the loss?
In this era of technological splendour, why not let books succumb also? There are practical advantages of eBooks after all. For a start the convenience of having hundreds of books stored electronically would reduce the sheer mess that inevitably arises in the home of the keen reader (no more will that immortal phrase be uttered: “What on earth am I going to do with all of these Enid Blyton novels?”), as well as being good news for anyone who struggles to stuff the Norton Anthology of English Literature volumes one and two into their holiday suitcase.
And besides, as overpriced as I found the popular selections, there is a large selection of material online that costs nothing at all, such as books for which the copyright is expired and therefore falls inside the public domain. While it’s possible to read these for free on the internet using resources such as Google Books, surely reading it portably with a reader would be a far more practical and comfortable way to enjoy some Dickens?
As sigh inducing as it would be for some, perhaps having literature in an easily accessible (and occasionally free) electronic form would encourage more people to read in the first place? It’s certainly something that Nintendo seem to have caught onto with their ‘100 Book Collection’ for the DS which has lashings of Austen’s and Shakespeare’s stored on one tiny cartridge. eBooks aslo render self-distribution much easier for aspiring writers, making it possible for them to find an (albeit perhaps limited) audience they otherwise never would have.
Ultimately however, while I think the notion of electronic books isn’t without any merit, physical ownership just seems too important in our society for them to take over in a particularly meaningful way. Having a physical copy of something just seems far more meaningful, and we enjoy having things we can actually look at and touch. Having things done digitally may be convenient, but it takes away a segment of ownership that while perhaps superfluous, still remains important. For the same reason I don’t doubt that downloading music is a practice that will continue, but by no means are physical sales of records going to dissipate overnight.
Books (as in the paper bound with a spine, cover and back, not just megabytes) have been around for centuries. The Diamond Sutra, the believed oldest surviving book bares the date 868 AD, and in these 1141 years I don’t believe terribly much has changed. Besides, next time I’m at Waterstones attending Terry Pratchett/Stephen King/Katie Price’s new bestseller’s book signing, I fear I would look a bit silly asking them to sign my Sony Reader.