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E-Books versus Real Reading – are PDFs the future of books?

January 26, 2011

About a week ago, a company that produces PDF copies of books to sell online started following me on Twitter. That the eBook phenomenon has managed to force its way into my life set me thinking about the future of reading. Are digital books the future? In 10 years, will I be browsing online “shelves” on Amazon looking for something to download to my Kindle? I sincerely hope not.

The Amazon Kindle does, admittedly, look very impressive. With its “all new, high contrast e-ink screen”, 241g weight (reportedly lighter than a paperback!) and reviews from such papers as The Independent, Mail on Sunday and The Telegraph all raving about it, its not surprising that the Kindle has, along with apps for the iPhone and iPad, revolutionised the reading experience. However, what does this really mean for bookshops? I read an article only two days ago that discussed the problems HMV are facing that may result in them selling off Waterstones, and I daresay that the rise of digital music plays a large contributing factor to the decline in hard-copy record sales that HMV primarily rely on. If the same thing happens to reading and the public choose to download books online rather than go out and buy a copy they can hold in their hand, then what will become of the traditional book retailers?

My concern for such booksellers as Waterstones is completely selfish. Waterstones is one of my favourite places to visit when out and about; I just love being surrounded by all that literature and being able to mentally compose a wish-list of all the things I want to read. It’s lovely to go and browse, to look at the covers, judge them, have a flick through while settled on a comfy sofa, and ultimately make a purchase (or not). I for one choose a good part of my pleasure reading by just wandering along the “Fiction A-Z” section, looking at the books, choosing things at random, picking them up and having a flick through. Making book-buying an online transaction takes the randomness of the act away completely. And how do people choose what to read if not by picking it at random?

Part of the joy I get from reviewing and recommending books is that sometimes, the books I write about are quite obscure and haven’t cropped up for a while, or been written about at all. If the opportunity to go and choose what I want to read completely independently gets taken away from me, then I can’t see that there would be much point in reading any more. Being able to go and pick up a hard copy of whatever I fancy is completely integral to reading culture. If everything I read is based on a review I’ve read in a newspaper or magazine, then inevitably what I write myself will either be a regurgitation of what was said to induce me to read whatever book it is in the first place, or a statement to counteract what the critic in question has written. When I look at reviews at the moment, I look more to see what other people are reading than to find out what they think of it. I like to formulate my own opinions of things without being influenced by outside sources. After I’ve read something, I may then go to find reviews to see if other people thought the same as me about it. I don’t want all my reading to be based on recommendations and reviews because the opportunity to wander the shelves in a bookshop has been taken away by computer culture.

The digital age has its up sides, for example, lots of literature can be preserved digitally lest it become lost as original copies become more and more scarce, and more and more fragile to handle. Projects like EEBO are absolutely invaluable to the preservation of the fine literary tradition that has been cultivated in the English language. It can also be exceptionally handy to have online access to texts when paper copies are unavailable. I have often used the Google Books service to grab quick quotes from texts when I didn’t have a hard copy to hand while writing essays. But necessity like this is different to choosing something for pleasure.

I may be old-fashioned, but I rather like having books that are books, much as I liked having a phone that was a phone and a camera that was a camera before the days of these gadgets that roll everything into one. If books as they currently exist become obsolete and gadgets like the Kindle take over, then the experience of reading will be ruined for a good many people. I will always favour the ‘real’ book and will resist the eBook phenomenon for as long as I can. If nothing else, going out to buy a book helps keep the world healthy because it involves walking to the bookshop and not just making a few clicks on a computer. Not everything can be replaced with a computerised substitute and for me, books are among the sacred things that should continue to exist as they do now, in their purest form.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 31, 2011 6:31 pm

    I really like your transitions and lucidity. I have been producing for Ghost Writers for a while now, and they pay me very well to write blog posts like this, or content articles. I clear $100-$200 on a bad day.
    Judging by your skill with the english language, you may enjoy doing the same.
    It wouldnt hurt to check them out.Here are the details

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