I swear. I promise. I love my gadgets. I’ve been an enthusiastic up-taker of technology since I first laid eyes on an Apple computer back in 1987. I’ve had around eight Mac computers, desk- and laptops, and numerous iThings; I’ve always upgraded my mobile phone as soon as my contracts allowed—and now my 84 year old Dad, who never quite figured out how to use his mobile, thinks I’m surgically attached to my iPhone. (He’s not far wrong.)
And it’s not just Mac stuff. I’ve got label-makers and kitchen gadgets that look adorably like Muppets and do more or less the same job as my trusty analogue aluminium box grater. I can not only program my DVD to play all regions, but I can—so I lately discovered when a new DVD player was not, in fact, all region as promised by the salesman in a certain yellow-logoed electronic chain store—download and upgrade its software in under 30 minutes.
And sometimes I think I live online. Those of you who know me know I am also a hearty user of social media. I’ve been tweeting since Christmas Eve 2008 (I now have 3 accounts and am delighted to say that my cat Louis was once trending in Australia—alas, because he was missing, but it did have a happy ending, so I can enjoy the brief notoriety). And let’s just say when your teenage niece tells you you’re spending too much time on Facebook, it may be time to take stock…
So you can see that I am not a Luddite.
But ebooks? I just haven’t got on board with them.
I don’t own a Kindle and I don’t think I ever will. I’ve got ereader apps on my iPad and iPhone, but despite that, I just don’t read ebooks. Ever. The most I’ve managed is a couple of chapters of a YA novel I downloaded to my first iPhone as a kind of experiment, but I didn’t get far with it. (Peggle may have had something to do with that—yes, it’s so long ago that I read a novel on an ereader that Angry Birds hadn’t even been invented.) I have downloaded other books—mostly out of copyright classics, thinking they’ll be handy backup reading if I ever get caught out without a book or magazine, but I don’t think I’ve cracked a single one of them. If the metaphor can cross media. And if turning on your ereader is, in fact the same thing as cracking a book.
For me, it’s just not.
It’s not that I have any particular objection to ereaders, and I certainly don’t think it’s a lesser form of reading. I find those who carp on about the death of the book as annoying as those who think people only tweet what they ate for lunch, or proclaim Facebook the end of intimacy. I am, in fact, delighted that ereader technology will very likely mean that writers will always have backlists that people can actually read, and that even the most obscure classic titles can be accessed at the press of a button. I’m even thrilled at the possibilities it presents for self-publishing and the publication of books that may otherwise be too “niche” for a paper print run to be viable, despite believing that the jury is well and truly out on editorial standards of straight-to-ereader titles.
So I’m all for the ereader. I just don’t want to use one.
And I don’t think that’s even because I particularly fetishize the object of the book. I mean, I do love them as beautiful objects—when they are—and I can get a rush of nostalgia from the smell of the pages of old favourites as strong as that I get from walking into a Sunday School hall, or a primary school classroom on a rainy day. I am full of admiration for beautiful book design, and I do think that even if I were an avid ereader, I’d still want beautiful paper editions of books I have loved on my shelves, for the sheer beauty of them, and the weight of ownership that only the physical object can provide.
Because we do have relationships with books. I have written in several places about the important role the children’s fantasy novel, The Magicians of Caprona by Diana Wynne Jones, has played in my life. I often take that book down, sometimes to read my favourite quote from it on its first page (For, as Paolo and Tonino Montana were told over and over again, a spell is the right words delivered in the right way), sometimes just to gaze at the cover and think about how this very object—a mere 191 pages, now heavily foxed—literally changed the direction of my life.
Here’s the cover of the edition I read, and the title page. It’s been signed by Diana, which is another reason to desire the physical book—it has markers not only of ownership and re-readings, but sometimes it is signed by the author, or dedicated by the giver. I’ve yet to hear that anyone has found a satisfactory way of so inscribing an ebook, although no doubt with the way technology gallops ahead of us, signed ebooks will be a reality in no time.
I’m personally not one to write marginalia—I rather wish I were, but I have conniptions at people who dogear pages as place-markers, so the thought of writing in a book thoroughly gives me the willies. But I’m glad OTHER people do, because I love nothing more than coming across a second-hand book, or a book from a university library, where a previous reader or student has left their musings on the contents. (Don’t get me started on those stitched-up, buttoned-down types who make corrections in, or even worse censor library books, though. And I say that as a card-carrying member of the Apostrophe and Punctuation Pedants Club.)
But back to covers. I mention the cover of The Magicians of Caprona specifically, because this particular cover art hugely influenced my reading of the novel. As you’ll see, it has the main characters, Tonino and Angelica, dressed in mediaeval-style clothing. The book is one of Jones’s Chrestomanci series, which deal with the concept of parallel universes. There’s nothing, as far as I know, in the text of Magicians which identifies the flavour of the period of its world as mediaeval, but it will always and forever be that for me because of this cover. I was stunned to find some years after reading it that other cover art suggested other quite different quasi-historical settings for the book, so I basically pretended they didn’t exist, and continue happily on with my vision of the world of this book in line with what the cover art of my edition proposed.
I know that ebooks have copies of the cover art on them, but one of my great joys in reading is flipping back to the cover and absorbing the images, either to enrich my enjoyment of the book, or to puzzle over the disparity between the cover designer’s interpretation and my own. And yes, I guess you can flip back to the cover image in your ereader, but is there really a digital equivalent of keeping your finger stuck in the page you’re up to, so you can flip back and forth—seeing the page and the cover in almost the same instant—just so you can check the cover image against, say, the textual description of the main character? Maybe there is. I confess my ignorance—but I can’t imagine it could possibly be as easily manipulated and controlled as the physical action of flipping around the pages of the physical book.
Same goes for internal images. I’m primarily a reader of fiction, but I also love biography (of which, more later) and I am quite obsessive about flipping back and forth between the text and the photographs of the book’s subject at different stages in their life. Was Rob Lowe really that impossibly handsome even at age 14? Yes he was—and there’s the photo to prove it.
And yes, I know that ebooks have those internal images as well. I did in fact download the ebook of Ransom Riggs’s odd little novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which those of you have read it will know is full of reproductions of the world’s weirdest vintage photographs. So is the ebook. But somehow those photos aren’t anywhere near as creepy on the Kindle on my iPad as they are in the pages of the book. I think the comparison here is the warmth vinyl fans lament as lost in CDs and digital music files. Paper does something to the reproduction that is simply lost in digitisation. And still, and yet again, there’s that browsing and flipping issue that I just can’t get past.
You also can’t collect ebooks. I mean, really, what would my beautiful collection of various editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland look like in e format? My uniform editions of the His Dark Materials trilogy with the gorgeous woodcut cover artwork? My treasured, incomplete set of Ruth Manning-Sanders’ fairy tale collections with the extraordinary Robin Jacques illustrations that take me straight back to the mid 70s and the hours and hours I spent every week in the Auburn Public Library? What would my study look like without my browsable collection of reference books on children’s literature and the craft of writing? My guest bedroom without a wall full of fiction for my guests to enjoy? My bedside table without a tumble-down to-be-read pile?
I’m going to digress here for a moment, although not really, because it’s still about reading and books and the different media they now come in. As I mentioned, I’m primarily a reader of fiction, but I do also love memoir and auto/biography. Of late, I have been listening to the latter on audiobook—but with one important condition. The memoir or autobiography has to be read by the author. It started with Caitlin Moran’s marvellous How to Be a Woman, read outrageously and wonderfully in her broad Wolverhampton accent, and I was utterly won over by the experience, selecting favourite chapters to listen to several times over. (May I recommend Chapter Seven: I Encounter Some Sexism for this purpose. Chapter Fifteen: Abortion is also a remarkable piece of writing, but you may want to keep it for a private moment to listen to: not one for the 7:26am Windsor to Town Hall all stations.) There’s a fabulous intimacy to the experience of having the person whose life it is read you their story. Since my encounter with Moran (my newest feminist and writing hero) I’ve listened to Stephen Fry’s two memoirs, Moab is My Washpot and The Fry Chronicles and am, as I write this, halfway through Michael J Fox’s Lucky Man. I listen to them in the car, to avoid depressing radio discussions of Australian politics, and when I’m gardening—so I can do my two favourite weekend things at the same time. I can’t listen to fiction on audio, though. I lose concentration, for some reason, and no matter how marvellous the reader, the voice in my head when I read fiction is mine to make, not an actor’s to impose. The only exception I can make there is for a beloved one to read to me—but I have to be honest and say it’s been many, many years since that happened. Also, magazines—I have no trouble at all with my Vanity Fair iPad subscription—probably because the swiping action so closely resembles that of flipping the pages of a magazine.
So I can enjoy reading in other formats, but only in this very limited fashion. And when it all comes down to it, given I am NOT a Luddite, I can really only explain my disdain for the ebook and my love for the paper version thusly: habit. Sheer force of habit, forged over 44 years of reading and treasuring the book. The experience, and love of reading, is so strongly and completely bound up in holding that physical object for me, that I could no more abandon the book than I could learn how to hold a pen properly (I tuck my thumb in: it’s given me 4 decades of writers’ cramp) or forget the words of The Lord’s Prayer.
I’m not a Luddite. I love my technology. I’m glad for you if your Kindle has allowed you hours of reading after your partner has turned off the bedside lamp, and lightened the load on your carry-on luggage. But don’t ask me to learn to love the ebook. I’m afraid it’s beyond me. Long live the book.