Are friends electric?

I did an interview the other week. Clearly, my geeky side is too well known as Julio asked me not merely about web 2.0 stuff but also about e-books.

E-books, read via the Kindle or other devices, are gaining some popularity in the States but haven’t really caught on over here. Aside from the lack of the actual hardware, I can see problems with the DRM, price per book, etc etc. But really, what I struggle to see is why a reader would trade the flexibility of a paperback book for the inflexibility and additional running costs of an e-book. So you can carry several hundred books around at the same time? You’ll still be screwed if there’s a power FAIL.

I spend 8+ hours a day looking at a screen, so I want a different experience if I then have a 3 hour train journey. An e-book reader emits light in order to create the words, the printed page absorbs it.

There’s a reason WHSmiths and the penguincubator set themselves up at stations, you know. After a long day at work, you want the soft magnolia page and the near-black print. And that’s as true now as it was in 1848 when Smiths opened their first branch in Euston station.

Ah, you might say, but what about portable music? You don’t cart around your vinyl Beatles LPs, do you? And you’ve been playing with your iPhone all week. I have, it’s true.

But music is a different sensual experience to reading. Music uses one sense only. If you’re like me, you might occassionally look out the train window and get a lovely audio-visual montage but primarily you’re just using your hearing. And the music itself drowns out the external noise. With reading, you’re not just using your eyes to take in the words. You can feel the type of paper beneath your fingers and you have to tune out the ambient noise. You can sometimes still smell the faintest suggestion of ink.

Giles: Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a, a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences… long forgotten. Books smell. Musty and, and, and, and rich.
The knowledge gained from a computer, is, uh, it… it has no, no texture, no, no context. It’s, it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then, then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um… smelly.

If I think of a book, I often get an all-senses memory. The Also People makes me think of being on a local train into Waterloo, pausing to look out at the passing estates and marvel at what I’d just read. Crime and Punishment makes me think of waiting at a countryside station in Cheshire, after a friend’s wedding, with insects buzzing in the wavering heat and Raskolnikov buzzing with vodka and guilt. Pride and Prejudice evokes the English landing at Exeter College, where I sat in an orange plastic bucket chair with some friends and developed a crush on my very own Mr Wickham. My copy of Jamaica Inn is my mother’s, and has too many associations to recount. Music is the same, of course. I wrote as much the other day. But with music it is the song that evokes the memory, not the physical object. Picking up my iPod doesn’t bring back anything very much at all.

I struggle to see e-books delivering the same overall experience as books, at least unless/until they do something so revolutionary with the form of writing that they deliver something uniquely new.

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3 Responses to “Are friends electric?”

  1. trinalin Says:

    I was a nay-sayer about eBooks too. But then I decided to try reading a few on my cell phone (HTC TyTN II). I’ve found that for some circumstances, having books on my phone is good. With Project Gutenberg and the Baen Free Library, I’ve even managed to avoid paying a lot of money.

    I still sit in my library, cats on lap & sleepytime music playing reading honest to goodness paper books. But when I’m oot & aboot, it’s nice to simply pull out my phone and read Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde or some Dickens or check out fiction by Mercedes Lackey. And being able to highlight a word and my dictionary tell me what it means? Quite nice.

  2. Lidian Says:

    I agree with you – I love my real books and they are indeed old friends…but a digitized rare book is a nice new acquaintance to have (never to take the place of the old friends, though). Am not Kindling quite yet so cannot form proper opinion of it. Perhaps will hint to family around birthday time this year!

  3. Mags Says:

    Ooh, I’ll use Gutenberg (very handy for skimming through Gaskill’s North and South to find the UST bits and skipping all the socio-economic stuff). I don’t object in principle with the distribution of books electronically. I just can’t see the technical benefit of an e-book reader over a…er…book.

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