If you have an e-book, what reasons might there be for buying a printed copy? That’s one of the questions given thoughtful consideration by Gaby Wood in last Saturday’s Telegraph in an article called ‘Reading the Future’ (Review Section ppR24-R25, sorry no online version right now.) It’s accompanied by a cartoon from the brilliant Matt showing an elderly gent standing next to a wall full of bookshelves with nothing on them except a single e-reader. ‘This is the library,’ he says to his guests. ‘Ouch!’ Devoted e-book fan that I am, the article and the picture raise some issues that have been creeping up on me for a while.
Our attachment to physical books is more than sentimental, it’s ingrained in our cultural psyche. This means that although I might not have bought any new printed books in a while (in fact since I was given a WH smith voucher last spring), I’d still hate my house not to contain any at all. Not that I own a vast number (I was brought up to use the library!) but I’ve had some of them a very long time and they each hold particular memories, not just of the book but also where it came from and the time or times when it was read. If through the years their numbers diminish (as a result of spring cleaning, injudicious lending or just old age) will there come a time when our house, or maybe our children’s could be book-free zones? For a generation in which book ownership was a powerful social indicator, this is a scary thought. But on the more personal level, how can we be reminded of what these books have meant to us if they have no physical presence? Gaby Wood quotes a colleague – a book is a souvenir of itself. Exactly.
But does a digital object really require a physical counterpart? Wood makes some comparison with digital photos. I myself persist in printing out my favourite photos each year, partly as a last-ditch back-up method but also to satisfy that need for the physical memento. But others probably use a digital photo frame which allows them to mount a display without printing anything out. I inadvertently installed a desk-top gadget that does the same thing – displaying my own photos in a random order – quite pleasing actually to be reminded on a February Monday of that trip toSouthern Europe two years ago . There are already ways in which we can do the same for books. Lots of bloggers display favourite reads on a sidebar or have feeds from book retail or review sites, keeping those novels from last year or the year before on the edge of our vision and within the borders of our consciousness.
So much for our work-space, but what about our lounge, hall or bedroom? Instead of a book-case, a slideshow of virtual book-covers marching across a screen? Gaby wood thinks we’ll always crave the physical object and comes up with another suggestion. ‘The e-book is the event, the book is the merchandising’ i.e. we will buy only those books we truly love and pay significantly more for them. Which begs the question, of the books I’ve read in the past year, how many would I want to own as physical copies? Off the top of my head, maybe three or four spring to mind. Of these (all bought as e-books) half were ‘bargains’, the others were the same price or near enough as the printed version. Would I really want to pay more? Or will publishers start to think about new pricing models? In the new scenario perhaps the e-book (mass sales) might be noticeably cheaper, encouraging us to splash out o a p.o.d. version of those we have loved. Or shall I root around charity shops, not for books I’d like to read but those I’ve read and would like to own?
I’m getting ahead of myself. It will be a long time (will it ever happen?) before everyone owns an e-reader. Maybe by then the mist will have cleared. Right now I think readers still don’t quite know what they want and publishers (big six, small publishers, indie authors) are all groping around in the dark. Let’s hope not too much is lost along the way.
Some recent favourites, incase you were wondering.