Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The battle of e-readers

I resisted for a long time. I like paper.  I like the sensation of holding a book in my hands, feeling its weight, leafing backwards and forwards.   I like using postcards and bus tickets as bookmarks - I leave them in the books I have finished, then find them years later.  This helps me reconstruct the experience of reading.  "Ah yes," I think, "that is where I was so concerned about Jean Valjean that I missed my stop," or "How sunny it was when I first followed Little Dorritt across the iron bridge."

My children persuaded me.  Indeed, they forced my hand by giving me, as a most generous mother's day gift, a kobo e-reader.  I'd begun to wonder how e-reading would feel but resisted the experiment.  Now resistance was useless.  I had an e-reader pre-loaded with a hundred books.

When they chose a kobo, my children respected my concerns.  I do my best to avoid Amazon and won't have anything to do with the kindle.  There are many reasons for this.  Amazon has a bad record for its treatment of employees.  It avoids paying British taxes.  Worst of all, it is trying to take such a position of power in the international marketplace that it risks establishing a near-monopoly position in which it would control authors, editing, bookselling and the way in which people read new books.

A monopoly in the production and reading of books would be a disaster, not just for book-lovers but for all who value history, free thought and the exchange of ideas.  Imagine a world where one company provided the only access to the means of reading and also controlled and selected what was available to read.  Even if the company began with the most benevolent motives, it would be bound to select certain titles for promotion above others and to give low priority to those it reckoned would be least profitable.  (All companies have to take account of economics.)  I'm not a great proponent of free-market capitalism but, when it comes to books, I'm with Milton in believing that we get nearest to truth - or progress - when ideas from numerous sources are allowed to clash with one another.  My preference for avoiding Amazon is a small act of resistance.  And in the matter of e-readers I was particularly determined to avoid Amazon.  

As I understand it (and I'm not highly technically aware) mobi - the format used by the kindle - locks readers into the kindle and Amazon.  By contrast epub - the rival format - allows users to switch from one kind of reader to another and import books from a range of sources.  While this over-simplifies the conflict - it is, for instance, to have a kindle-reader installed on a pc or an ipad - there are plainly problems in Amazon's approach and these are intensified by their offer of better terms to self-published authors who are prepared to make their work available through kindle only.  I can't comment on the quality of their books because I shan't be reading them.

For me, the kobo will never supersede books.  It does less than them.  However it does mean that I can leave the house knowing that I have, at the latest count, 176 books in my handbag.  They are mostly 19th century works - free and out of copyright.  I have most of them as paper books as well.  But there are exceptions.  I've managed to find books that are obscure and out of print - and I've obtained books in French that aren't easy to find in England.  It's great for bus and train journeys and I'm old enough to appreciate the ease with which I can enlarge the font when my eyes are tired.

So far I haven't read a great deal on my kobo.  I enjoyed Bel Ami (in French with the original illustrations) and, in honour of the Dickens bicentenary, I re-read Little Dorritt.  Now, attracted by the title, I've turned to Zola's L'Argent.  It will take me some time to get used to Zola's sentence structure.  

But I've noticed something about reading on the kobo that I hadn't expected.  It makes me focus on smaller sections of text - just because the page is smaller than the double spread of a paperback.  That means that the books which are most pleasurable are those which are densely written or which require careful attention.  The works of Dickens and books in French are ideal but I can't imagine wanting to read a modern thriller in English on my kobo.  I can't read poetry on it either - epub seems to lose the layout which is such an important element.  So it's a rather old-fashioned means of reading and I'm enjoying its old-fashioned elements.

I wonder if e-readers will last in their present form.  I rather hope they do as they're very convenient and a good aid to concentration.  But the popularity of multi-media tablets suggests that literature in its wordy form may give way to something more complex, where words, sounds and images are mixed and where pathways through the work are multi-linear and even driven by chance.  The literature of the future may mutate into a cross between the experimental novel and the computer game.  It may even return to its oral roots and become more of a social and communal experience as readers take the opportunities offered by the internet to read and respond together.

But meanwhile I'm loving my solitary experience of the 19th century.  As my train passes flooded fields I'm plunging back in time and wandering through the crowded backstreets of London and Paris.  I recommend the journey.


Chris Gray said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Gray said...

Looks like you're heading to a familiar Sci-fi story there. One company / organization supplying, and ruling, all material that we see.

My parents gave me a Kindle for Christmas. I've read some free items. There's some erotica for those lonely nights and supernatural comedy for those quick for bus rides.

Ultimately my book collection on it is similar to my co-worker's, who asked me to set it up for her. Anything she wants loaded up, I immediately get for free on my Kindle.

From what I know Waterstones will soon be set up for Kindle / e-readers. However, their track record isn't superb either.

But there are advantages to the e-reader. For writers, it's a platform to work to. For readers...well, I'm sure you know yourself about mobility.

But I rarely use mine. I keep it clean of poetry (however I do have one translation of The Illiad) and, although very big, I can't imagine myself having Don Quixote on it.

And bare in mind, my first Dickens was read this year. Great Expectations. And it was a paperback my father gave me last birthday. It was cheap, but it's comfortable and I love it.

I miss blogging

PS. First draft of this comment contained typos - hence the 'This comment has been removed by the author'. Proof reading at 00.25 still gets me.

Anonymous said...

Yes i too have little bits of paper, drawings and design from years ago tucked into pages somewhere, it often amazes me how clever i was!!

My optician is kindle mad, loves his. he knows me well, in fact one of the few ppl I've told abt my kll blogs, but tho i respect such praise I always like to see the book end up here on the shelves, where i can see it and recall having read it, or even whip it out to show a visitor.

I didn't realise abt Amazon, i don't like their site anyway, sort of cluttered and confuses me.

Your act of resistannce is echoed in my never going to the huge Metro Shopping Centre we have in the North east here, I'm all against it and its detrimental effect on smaller high streets.

always wonder on the wear and tear on librarians arms of toting books back to the shelves, I've had tennis elbow in both arms and sympathise with their task.

Yes, kobo really scores in the ability to get foreign language texts, oh heck makes me think i can get Chinese nursery books for my own endeavours ... Richard NO.

Kathz said...

Chris, I hope you'll return to blogging soon. And I think if you travel you may find it's good to have a library of free e-books with you. I have two copies of Ulysses but didn't have them with me when I suddenly felt an urge to return to it as I caught the train home. (I only managed to get a quarter of the way through on Bloomsday weekend but hope to race through the rest this week - I've read it often enough to find re-reading a complete pleasure.)

kllrchd - I share your detestation of shopping centres, and have managed to cut my trips to big supermarkets to 9 or 10 a year. I don't think the kobo offers Chinese texts although there may be an ereader that does. A friend was tempted by the idea of the ipad because of Chinese apps but that's in another league for price and I don't share the wide craving for i-everything. The kobo turned out to be an unexpected treat.