Noncommittal for kindle or less than kind?

April 1, 2012 12:33 am Published by Leave your thoughts

One must of course strive to remain open-minded. Most often – and most persuasively – attributed to Sir Thomas Beecham is the remark: “One should try everything once, except incest and Morris dancing”. On the other hand, advancing years dull the appetite for novelty. I see no prospect that in the time left to me I shall ever attend a baseball match, visit either pole, take up crochet, read a Jeffrey Archer novel, bungee-jump, join the SAS, restore a classic car, learn the trombone, watch Britain’s Got Talent, make love to Zsa Zsa Gabor or run a half-marathon. Over none of these do I lose sleep.

But technology is apt to bring the unthinkable within reach. For years, I owned a word processor without ever being curious about its parallel functions as a computer. It did what I needed it for and the rest was just another displacement activity. Since switching to Mac in the 1990s, a whole other world has opened up.

There will be those, I do not doubt, who will tell me that a comparable world will burst before me like a flower, if I invest in a Kindle. Yet I find myself no more drawn to this device than to watching Nip/Tuck or holidaying on Ibiza. Is this a prejudice on my part or is it a realistic assessment of how the device will surely fail to dovetail with my habits, needs and inclinations?

I have never handled a Kindle nor seen one in the flesh. I believe I grasp what it does, but my knowledge may be imperfect. Correct me if I am wrong but here goes: it is a form of digital tablet dedicated to downloading, storing and displaying print, primarily in the form of pre-existing books, periodicals, newspapers and other publications. Hence it also goes by the designation of an ebook reader, which is to say a personal computer for reading purposes.

The very idea makes my head ache. It may not be as barbaric as watching a movie on your mobile phone – the notion of sitting through a four-inch-by-two-inch screening of Abel Gance’s Napoléon beggars belief – but when I perforce spend so many of my waking hours training my declining eyesight on various kinds of screen, I need a different kind of texture to rest my eyes upon for reading, and indeed one that is in light rather than emitting light.

But look, the Kindlean will explain, you can pack an effective infinity of books for a trip without breaching luggage restrictions. That may well be so. But I am a slow reader. A substantial novel – a Dickens, a Lawrence Norfolk, even a John Irving – will generally see me through the sojourn and back, and I can always pick up something if I should finish unwontedly soon. What’s more, I’m not at all sure I could handle an infinity of choice. One might find oneself sliding into the unacceptable custom of not finishing a book. Let me make my bargain with a single volume and keep my end of it, trusting that the writer will have kept hers.

This infinity thing is definitive for me. I don’t want a multitude of possibilities. I want to have chosen already. I have been acquiring books since childhood and I have shed hardly any volumes along the way – for instance, I still possess pretty much all of Beatrix Potter and a smattering of Enid Blyton.

From my maternal grandfather, already a schoolmaster when Victoria reigned, I have a set of various novels, illustrated and identically board-bound, that includes Jane Eyre, Westward Ho! and David Copperfield but also such lost masterpieces as Charles Lever’s Harry Lorrequer and John Halifax, Gentleman by Mrs Craik. I was going to make a smart point about books like that not being available as ebooks, but a moment’s on-line research has confounded me.

The wider point, though, is that I already have a library. Jonathan Franzen, who is 12 years younger than me, remarked some years ago that he had totted up his book collection, calculated his life expectancy and his rate of book consumption, and discovered that he had more books than he could possibly read. That must have been true of me half a lifetime ago, but I have felt no compunction in adding to the store. A large part of the pleasure of books is the having of them. This is a pleasure unknown to Kindle.

Perhaps possession is not quite nine-tenths of the love but it means a lot. If you can just snag anything you fancy on Kindle, where’s the fun? There’s no substitute for trawling through second-hand bookstores and stumbling on unimagined treasures. What proper book-lover has ever left an antiquarian bookshop empty-handed? And then there’s the joy of entering an unfamiliar bookseller’s and happening upon that edition, tucked at the end of a shelf, that you have sought for years. What does Kindle know of “editions’?

It’s the nebulous nature of the on-tap character of the material that repulses me. It’s why I was never able to get into Spotify. I love downloading music. It’s on my iMac, I can go through my comprehensively organised lists and decide what to play, knowing pretty much what the choice encompasses. But with Spotify, the “jukebox in the sky”, it will take me half the evening to narrow down my choice and then if I happen to catch something I like but don’t know, will I be able to find it again? Do I want that much shuffling to do with stuff I don’t actually own?

This supposed cornucopia of availability robs the book-lover of all the pleasure of the search and the chase, the voyage specifically to track down a new or old volume, the delight of having it between your hands for the first time, of smelling its essence, of squeezing the texture and thickness of its paper between your fingers, of appreciating (or perhaps not) the publisher’s choice of cover, of font, of dimensions, of physicality.

Books are a physical pleasure. Handling them is as sensual as anything this side of sex. I love to linger by our shelves, looking at spines, pulling out odd volumes, noting which have still to be read. I love to see the progress of my reading a book described in the creases on the spine. Some book-lovers abhor such treatment, considering it sacrilege. In my turn, I deprecate turning down the corners of pages. Bookmarks are delightful objects and I collect small leather ones wherever I go, purely for sliding in between the pages where I last stopped reading. Kindle has no such supplementary delights. Oh yes, I’m sure you can have the functions, just not the sweetness.

But in this age of interactivity, you will increasingly be able to add to the ebook. I don’t much care for the annotations of others and am put off buying an old tome if I spot marginalia and other emendations. The passing of years does not generally render the passing remarks of others less banal. Now, apparently, you can “highlight” passages of books on Kindle and, when a certain number of readers have marked the same passage, it will be flagged for your attention as you read. How crass.

This is all of a piece with the “clips” culture that rules on television, so that every past programme is known for a celebrated moment. I am so glad that I saw the first transmission of those episodes of Only Fools and Horses in which Del-boy fell through the bar and the chandelier fell from the ceiling. The delight – unimaginable now – is that one didn’t know that these things were going to happen.

There’s a parallel convention in newspapers where what is called a “pull-quote” is drawn from a piece and printed large in the margin or where an illustration might have gone. Often this quote will be the article’s best joke, thereby ruined by being blown up out of context. Equally often, the quote will be slightly rewritten for length so that it is not even an accurate quote. It’s not an aspect of journalism that I miss, now that I am out of that game.

All of this speaks to the urge to “promote” a book in particular, writing in general. There is a certain amount of cover promotion on books that I try to avoid. If I find a sticker on a book, shouting that it has been read on Radio 4 or has won the Orange Prize, I will ascertain that the sticker is peelable before I purchase. One of Patrick Gale’s novels will not join my shelves until the publisher brings out an edition that does not carry a quote from the allegedly omniscient Stephen Fry on the cover. These things matter with books. They do not enter the equation with Kindle because the whole transaction is so impersonal.

Indeed, there are myriad concerns over the possession of books, of all of which the ebook reader is innocent. There is the matter of inscriptions, some of them remarkably historic and/or plangent. Here is a pertinent observation from a book dealer in Chipping Campden: “Imagine how delightful it would be to own an edition of Thomson’s The Seasons with this authenticated inscription: To my dear friend John Keats in admiration and gratitude from PB Shelley, Florence 1820. Imagine, too, how depressing to have an otherwise fine first of Milton’s Paradise Lost with this ball-point inscription scrawled on the title page: ”To Ada from Jess, with lots of love and candy floss, in memory of a happy holiday at Blackpool, 1968″.

This quote derives from Ex Libris. Its author, the American bibliophile Anne Fadiman, counts among her other topics the housing of books and what she calls “my odd shelf”. No one may seriously reckon to be a book-lover while neglecting to read Anne Fadiman. Her joy in books is a joy twice over.

But that is the nub of it. If you love books qua books, you could never hug a Kindle to your bosom. Don’t talk to me about how practical it is. Who cares? Love is not practical. Love is a fine madness. If every book ever published can be got through Kindle, why would you feel the compulsion to read any of them? I obsessively tend the tottering pile of books by my bed, barely able to forbear from breaking into the top one before the current one is exhausted. Periodically I change my opinion about which I will read next but two or three or I slip another into the pile. I never remove one that has been promoted to this eminence of imminence. You may call this semi-psychotic behaviour. I think proper book-lovers will recognise similar traits in their own passionate attachment to the physical presence rather than the digital abstraction of reading.


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This post was written by W Stephen Gilbert

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