Yesterday, I got home after a long day at work and read a book in the bath. It was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, which turned out to be fairly harrowing, dealing as it does with the harrowing impact of the bombing of Dresden in World War II. But then again, it has plunger-shaped aliens from the planet Tralfamadore in it, so that’s something.
It was a wonderful read, and kept me in the water long after my skin had turned wrinkly. And it occurred to me that there’s simply no way to enjoy the great pleasure of bath-reading with a tablet, unless you’re rich enough to have a few dozen of them on hand. It’s best done with a paperback, one that you don’t mind getting slightly damp just in case you can’t quite manage to keep one hand dry. (Keep a towel within reach is my tip.)
At a time when the publishing industry has been struggling with the sales of books that aren’t about angst-ridden vampires, problematic sado-masochistic relationships or celebrity chefs, and even those few who make time to read nowadays have been gravitating towards e-books, it’s worth remembering what’s great about reading printed books.
Our media consumption is becoming internet based, as we increasingly stream music and download television. It doesn’t really matter whether a programme is downloaded or watched off the air – you’re still viewing it on the same screen. And while there are subtle differences between playing vinyl and streaming from Spotify, you’re still listening to the same recording through the same speakers.
But a printed book (“p-book”, for the purposes of this article) and an e-book offer different experiences when you consume them. Both have their place, and I certainly love taking my e-reader when I travel, but I doubt I’ll ever stop buying and reading printed books, even out of the bath.
Every book on my shelf has a memory attached to it. I remember where I bought them, who I was with, what kind of a day it was. Which is another thing that’s wonderful about p-books – the experience of buying them from bookshops, a pleasure that no website “recommendations engine” can hope to replicate. When I’m browsing in a bookshop, I’ll discover titles that the bookshop’s staff recommend not because they’re bestsellers, not because they’ve profiled me, but because they love them. That’s an irreplaceable service, and while the days of mega-chain bookshops have already gone forever, and I miss the scale and range of those massive Borders that were only with us for a decade or so, I’m sure that smaller, local, independent bookshops will survive. I certainly plan to keep supporting them.
I love a brand new book, with that unique freshly-printed smell, but I also love second-hand books. Browsing through an emporium of musty tomes is a pleasure that an e-reader cannot hope to replicate – and second-hand is cheaper than buying e-books, too. You can’t resell e-books – in fact, you may not even be able to pass them on to your children, unless they’re going to juggle multiple Amazon accounts, for instance. And what happens if Amazon goes broke?
I loved reading books for school that my parents had once enjoyed, and if I ever have children, I hope they’ll go on to plunder my own collection someday. P-books also turn satisfyingly yellow as they age. I love the tactility of books, too – their covers, often with brilliant graphic design, the beautiful layout and fontography. E-books all look and feel the same, a one-font-size-fits-all approach.
One day I plan to have a study lined with bookshelves, containing the perfect easy chair and reading lamp, but I already have a few bookshelves in my living room that form an enticing wall of colour, bulging with pleasure and potential. While e-readers usefully save space for those who live in small apartments, as Anthony Powell observed, books do furnish a room. E-readers do not.
Even if we don’t always find time to read nowadays, exploring a bookshelf lets you imagine long, lazy days of reclining and becoming immersed in a book. Sometimes a friend will notice a title on my shelf and borrow it, a pleasure that e-books cannot afford. You can get a p-book signed by the author, or give it as a Christmas present, and while gifting e-books is wonderfully convenient for friends who live overseas, you can’t stash them under the tree on Christmas morning.
Of course, they have their place. I read A Song of Ice and Fire (the source for Game of Thrones) on one while travelling, and lugging the thousands of pages of sci-fi around would have been a huge hassle. Uni textbooks were an annoying burden back in the day as well. The ease and convenience of online purchasing is a huge plus, but whenever I buy an e-book, I feel like I don’t really own it, and can’t get the maximum enjoyment from it.
What I’d like to see happen is what happens with vinyl albums nowadays, whereby if you buy a physical book, you also get a code for a bundled e-book copy. I’d like to be able to read a book in print when at home, and keep reading on a tablet while away. And I’d feel more comfortable with the print copy sitting on my shelf in perpetuity.
So while I’m actively adding to my e-book library, I’d still rather read a book in print. It’s simply a more pleasurable experience, and I like being able to slot them into my bookshelf when I’m done, where I can simply glance at the spine and remember the enjoyment I got from reading it. So while e-books have their place, especially when travelling, I’m a p-book man for life. At least until they invent a submersible e-reader.