On holiday once, I was berated by an elderly Yorkshireman for “staring int’ computer again.” It took some considerable explanation to convince him that I was in fact reading a book and even when convinced, he shook his head in disapproval. His supposed reasoning was about the “feel” of a book, and it was irrational but not unusual. The fact that books feel and smell like what they are – ink on paper – seems to be the core reason why many people reject eReaders. Now, I have no wish to berate anyone for partaking in sensual pleasure – good luck to you! But if you are so inclined, why not just keep a small handful of books for sniffing and feeling? You don’t need hundreds.
I clung to the notion myself for a while. My first eReader, a Sony, was beautiful but felt strange. In the end, the hassle of plugging it into a computer and remembering how to download things proved to be too much of a challenge. I am a lazy technophile and I expect my gadgets to do everything for me in the style of '70s futuristic Sci Fi. But lo, then the Kindle appeared. Wireless. Instantaneous. Scarily easy to spend on. And I saw that it was good.
How anyone that claims to “love books” can be suspicious of these little devices amazes me. As a child I had numerous book-related fantasies, and I’m not talking about the book-smelling that I mentioned earlier; I mean the heady fantasies of a child who spends most of her waking hours living and breathing the narrative of her current favourite story. One of my abiding fantasies was to be able to open up my hand and summon a book of my choice in an instant. With the Kindle, my fantasy became a reality and now I feel like a child again. The only question is – what the hell do I do with all those old paperbacks?
I mentioned to my late father-in-law that I was culling my book collection and his reaction was one of horror: “I couldn’t possibly get rid of a book!” he thundered, as if my recent decision to donate around half of my ludicrously large collection to charity were an outrage to Jehovah. Not that I ever actually saw him reading a book, mind you, and by his own admission he tended to sample a small snippet before he got bored and moved onto another. This is something, incidentally, that the Kindle is perfect for; he wouldn’t even have had to leave his chair.
I assumed that I would meet with more rational thinking at work, but yet more irrationalism greeted my pragmatic remarks on space and the relative likelihood of me ever actually getting round to reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. (I mean ... really?! Where did I even get it?!) Most of the romantics that I work with are considerably younger than I am and yet they speak in the same terms as the elderly Yorkshireman and my father-in-law. (God help us). More mumblings about smells and the rustling of paper, more lofty claims about how wonderful it is to live surrounded by a myriad of book-spines.
Now I wonder how many of these people have had to move in and out of countless college rooms, jobs and houses with a large book collection? I spent eight years in Higher Education, and for some of that time I had to move in and out of my room six times a year. When I moved into lodgings near my first place of work, I was given a month’s notice in the first few weeks. Flat shares followed and a good deal of further moving before I even began to settle down. Then I met my husband and moved again, twice in one year. Since moving to our current home I have moved my books on and off temporary shelves and up and down stairs ad nauseam, as we progress through a decorating process that will probably never finish.
And by the time you have moved hundreds of books hundreds of times, trust me: you start to resent them. Not their contents, you understand, but their physical presence.
In Stephen Fry’s first novel, The Liar¸ the wonderful Professor Trefusis, a character who lives surrounded by improving volumes in what he calls his “librarinth”, is similarly fed up:
‘Waste of trees. … Stupid, ugly, clumsy, heavy things. The sooner technology comes up with a reliable alternative, the better.’
A wise man, Professor Trefusis, who elsewhere in the novel points out that the physical existence of a book is irrelevant to its intrinsic value:
‘Books are not holy relics. … Words may be my religion, but when it comes to worship, I am very low church. The temples and the graven images are of no interest to me. The superstitious mammetry of a bourgeois obsession for books is severely annoying.’
Books are a vessel for learning, a gateway to knowledge or a vehicle that can transport you to another world. They are not of intrinsic value, yet what they bring to those of us that love them is incalculable. For me, anything that speeds up and facilitates that process is a Godsend.
This piece was first published on the Kindle Users' Forum in 2012.