Maybe it’s true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, although personally I think you sometimes can. But I’m quite sure it’s true that you can judge a person by their bookshelves: the number of shelves as well as the books on them.
And you can get an impression of someone from what they’re reading. I’m guilty of the possibly deadly sin of occasionally trying to impress with a title. If someone in particular is coming to visit I might carefully leave a current or controversial or difficult-sounding volume lying ever-so-casually where they can’t miss it.
In both respects the advent of the e-book raises a major problem. How can people judge me by my bookshelves if my recent purchases are stored in cyberspace? What can I leave lying on the couch to show my visitor that I’m across the latest solution to the world’s problems, or that I’m trying to learn Finnish?
On the other hand, if I continue to buy conventional books and my shelves are full of the latest titles, won’t that in itself provide a judgement by bookshelf? I’ll seem hopelessly old-fashioned, still buying those hard-copy versions.
But these compelling factors weren’t the real reason for my initial hesitation, my early resistance to e-books. I thought, just as I heard many other people think, that an e-book wouldn’t be the same, it wouldn’t be a real reading experience. I wanted to hold a book in my hand. I wanted to turn the pages. I wanted the feel of paper and the sound of it, and I wanted to be able to see by the thickness of each side how far I had got, and how much I was yet to read.
Then one day I saw the light: the book in its present physical format only seemed the norm because it had been around all my life, and for quite a while before that. But books haven’t always felt and looked and smelt the way I was used to. The presentation of a book is evolving just like every other life form. Take music. It’s not all that many decades ago that I and others were saying we didn’t feel as though we got as much for our money if it wasn’t vinyl we bought. These days I buy music online, download and play it straight from the computer as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Who needs to “touch” music?
As for touching books and liking the turn of the pages, I wonder whether readers a few millennia ago were similarly resistant to the evolving form. Did they miss the weight of the clay tablets, when papyrus came into use? And later, did text on parchment not provide them with a real reading experience, after they had become used to papyrus? And as for that new-fangled paper stuff, how could it ever take the place of the feel and quality of parchment?
So I hauled myself into the twenty-first century. I bought an iPad and a smart phone. I learnt how to sync my music and books. I joined Twitter. I got an iPod that was the smallest thing I had ever seen and yet it could hold enough songs to play through for five days without repeating itself. Of course, I didn’t manage all this on my own. I had to be taught by a kid who really understands this stuff. Still, I feel like the coolest 60-year-old in town.
Best of all, on a recent trip to Europe I was able to carry enough books and movies for the flights in both directions, as well as all the train-trips and reading-in-bed while I was away. My luggage was noticeably lighter than usual and I had no need to shed books as I moved on. No more leaving a quite amusing paperback in a hotel room or swapping something I’d really enjoyed for someone else’s discarded choice.
There is still that thing about no titles or covers showing, to be judged by. Not only will no-one on the tram realise what a fascinating text I’ve got in front of me, but how will I know what they’re reading? Maybe iPad can introduce an optional light-up strip on the side, with colour codes to show “I’m reading fiction” or “This is really heavy economics”.
Or should we guard this unexpected secret we’re allowed, in a world where in all other respects privacy has been lost?