Lucy Mangan

I love books, but I loathe e-readers

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I remember the first time I saw one. I was in a meeting with the publisher of my first book, Hopscotch & Handbags, discussing the cover when someone, searching through her own handbag for some notes, put this… this thing on the table.

We poked it gingerly before turning questioning eyes on its owner. ‘What be this strange futurebox?’ we wondered. It was, it turned out, the future of reading. When she turned her e-reader on and put it through its paces, half the room recoiled, the other half leant forward in fascination, a bifurcation of attitude that has followed the e-reader ever since. But the forward-leaners are winning. E-book sales overtook print book sales in the US last year and soon doubtless will outpace 3D tomes over here soon too – Christmas Day 2011 in the UK saw 1.3 million e-readers given as gifts and some big publishers reported more than 100,000 downloads each that same day. All of my colleagues have them and most of my friends – people I previously thought of as human beings with hearts, souls and inner lives. Now I see e-readers everywhere, even on the train home – and frankly, when you see an innovation leap the Thames and make it south, you usually know it’s time to stop fighting.

Never. I loathe them. They seem to be almost exactly everything books and reading are meant not to be. You cannot immerse yourself in a book onscreen. It is a cold, hard, affectless experience. On top of that, I agree with Nicholas Carr’s argument in The Shallows: How The Internet Is Changing The Way We Think, Read And Remember that “the linear, literary mind” is being destroyed by scanning, skim-reading and clicking. My eyes and mind roam unstoppablyover a smooth screen. With books I retain older, better habits. I pay attention. I savour.

An e-reader may have sufficient memory to store 3,500 books, but where are the memories that real books bring? When I gaze at my bookshelves – and yes, I gaze at my bookshelves – I get almost as much pleasure from reminiscing about who gave or recommended each book to me, where they were bought, on which holidays, with which friends, where and when I first read them and so spirit-restoringly on. Can you do that with e-books? I don’t think so. Don’t you see? They’re eroding our very humanity!

E-readers have the memory to store 3,500 books, but where are the memories real books bring?

Yes, clearly, I love books. But it is not (only) mindless romanticism that makes me cleave to them. A book is an ancient but peerless piece of technology. For ease of use it cannot be bettered. Just turn the page. Nothing stands between you and successful appropriation of its contents. No button to break, no battery to run out (“But the battery last for ages!” squawk defenders. I have hundreds of secondhand books on my shelves – perfectly ordinary, mass-produced paperbacks – that have already lasted half a century and more with nary a socket in sight. Beat, if you will, that, squawkers). And the words before you can’t be accidentally wiped or deleted remotely, as Amazon did during a publishing dispute to US e-reader books in 2009. Nobody tracks what you read and uses it for profile-building purposes. A book is private, instantly accessible and yours for as long as you want it. Yes, it only holds one book at a time while its cyber-brethren hold thousands, but so what? How many books can you read at once?

E-readers are representative of our mindless embrace of all that purports to be ‘progress’ and symbolic of our rush to embrace whatever is newest without really thinking it through. ‘New’ is no more synonymous with ‘better’ than ‘natural’ is with ‘good’.

Stay old-school. Empirical evidence gleaned from the room I’m in shows that a Billy bookcase holds around 250 books – triple that with extra shelving and doublestacking. I’m a heavy reader and even for me 750 is eight years’ worth of biblioneeds met. Any handbag can generally hold at least two books. Keep another paperback or two by your bed, by the sofa and in the loo and you can enjoy nearly a decade of ample choice and thousands of hours of happy reading without needing to recharge. You know it makes sense.

Do you agree or disagree with Lucy? Share your views in the comments below.

Main picture credit: Rex Features


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