This Yule I was lucky enough to be given an e-book reader. After switching it on and frustratingly browsing some e-book distributor websites I chose to download George Orwell’s 1984. There are complicated reasons for this choice, not the least of which that the last time I read 1984 from cover to cover was early september 2001. I was actually reading about the Ministry of Peace at the exact moment that I heard about the twin towers, it seemed as if the face of Osama Bin Laden had been forever superimposed over the goat-like features of Goldstein – Orwell’s archetypal terrorist scapegoat. Winston Smith’s job in the ministry of Truth is to re-edit historical documents in prescribed ways in order to justify and uphold the shifting pragmatic views and actions of a monolithic state. For me the book is a study of social control through the control of information, the manipulation of minds through the manipulation of accepted reality – propaganda, censorship and outright lies as strategies to maintain the position of those in power. I have for sometime now viewed the rise of the e-book as a form of Orwellian censorship, the change in technological format resulting in the unavailability of more marginal, less popular, or less marketable texts. Just as the transference from vinyl to CD and from VHS to DVD accentuated the predominance of blockbusters, bestsellers and profit considerations in film and music output, so the e–book may serve to narrow literary production. Although this fear has proven unfounded, downloading Orwell’s evermore relevant 1984 as my first e-book went someway to alleviating my anxiety at the time.
However, I recently read The Satanist by Dennis Wheatley (in complicated circumstances beyond my control), a paperback no less, an old paperback printed in 1960. Now I have read about half a dozen Wheatley books in my time, and I am hard pushed to distinguish any of them apart – it is formula writing in the occult thriller genre that is thoroughly lacking in imagination or insight. All the so-called Satanists greet each other with “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”, none of them are English and they all speak in ridiculous phonetically transcribed accents. All the goodies work clandestinely for the War Office, throw holy water in people’s faces and all speak in ridiculous phonetically transcribed English accents. The cheap trade paperback red cardboard cover was an imitation of an august nineteenth century library-binding but like tacky, with smudged gold blocking (lettering). It was published by Grove Press and it cost me a quid second-hand from somewhere or other. The cover cracked and the front fell off, although no actual pages had fallen out by page 145, when I couldn’t take anymore sexist racist classist twaddle and stopped reading the damned thing.
What does all this tell me? For a start, it is a bad reading experience to read a badly made paperback that falls apart, particularly if that paperback is by Dennis Wheatley. Further, I sense an ecological dilemma with buying paperbacks. Frankly, the vast volume of best-seller trash that has been committed to paper in the past decade or so is enough to make a whole forest weep. It probably is better to keep the throw-away cheap fiction pot-boilers in cyberspace. I have also discovered that out of print books are often still available as e-books, quite the reverse of my Orwellian censorship fears. It may in fact be the situation that a book need never be ‘out of print’ ever again. Finally, a few writers and small publishers have explained to me how easy e-book publishing has become, easier and cheaper than publishing paperbacks, which of course opens up the range of titles available rather than narrowing it. Perhaps nobody will be re-issuing Dennis Wheatley’s backlist in e-book format, but that can hardly be a bad thing when all’s said and done.
On the other hand, I still do have qualms about the threat that e-book readers pose to some aspects of the book industry. Independent bookshops have been in decline for some years now. In the 2 two years around the time of the closure of my own bookshop, 6 other independent bookshops were forced to close in Cambridge alone. Partly this was due to the rise of the multi-national corporate chain bookshops, the burgeoning of internet book sales, the cornering of the second-hand book market by charity shops and the proliferation of bookstands in supermarkets, cafes and most other public spaces. My worry is the loss of the expertise and experience if the independent bookshops all go to the wall. I am very disappointed by the categorisation and presentation of titles available on Kindle – either you type in a specific title or accept a recommended best-seller from Amazon, who are hardly qualified to distinguish literary quality from profit-generated quantity. Furthermore, although traditional bookbinding skills have been in decline since Penguin invented the non-sewn paperback in the 1930s, the sewing and casing of books is a much-refined and functional craft that has been perfected over centuries to be the most effective and aesthetic way of keeping texts for long periods, the total loss of this art-form could have Orwellian consquences.
This is not all, I encountered three serious practical problems in reading from an e-book. Firstly, progress is indicated by a percentage and I am totally lost without page numbers. It doesn’t seem possible to make an index using these percentages which, like the visible screen, bear no relation to a fixed page, starting and ending in different places each time I switched away. There didn’t seem to be a contents page either, so chapter headings became inconsequentially clicked by and forgotten, and I felt I had no point of reference for a structural overview of the book and how the elements fitted together progressing to the final chapter. The second practical problem is that on the Kindle reading progresses from the start sequentially to the end with no room for flicking back more than one screen at a time, this is simply not how I read. The experience was a feeling of plodding, whereas I naturally read back and forth reading and re-reading, sometimes by whole chapters, in search of a vaguely remembered choice sentence or poignant metaphor. This pleasure was lost in the limited linear start-to-finish capacities of the e-book reader. Thirdly, what will happen to e-book readers when the oil/gas/electricity finally runs out, are they developing a solar or wind-powered extension? And what will happen if e-books are made obsolete by some other yet undreamed-of book-reading technology. Will Kindle go the way of Betamax? (a joke there for anyone over 40).
I can’t imagine what a bookless world would be like, I have 1000s of paper books in my collection and one of my pleasures is stumbling across a book I haven’t seen for a while, some cannot possibly be reproduced on an e-book – graphic novels and art books for instance. Many readers I have spoken to say they miss the tactile qualities of books, the physical turning of pages, riffling, skimming, jotting in the margins and turning over corners. Some even obsess about the smell of books, and as a former bookshop owner I can vouch that there are people out there who sniff books rather than read them!