Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Everything has its limitations - even e-books? by Ali Bacon

e-book or printed?
During a recent weekend spent with writers old and young, I was in the company of a well-known novelist (no namedropping) and mentioned I was enjoying reading Gone Girl. (I was about half way through at the time).  She said she had like it too and like me had read the e-book. She also happened to say that it was ‘the kind of book that was good for Kindle’. This perplexed me but I let it ride until later in the weekend by which time I had finished the book and  we talked about it again. I wanted to know which novels she considered good for Kindle. I might have misunderstood, but I gathered that she considered the e-format better for quick reads, genre fiction or page-turning thrillers.
I was surprised that she felt this need to differentiate in this way. She has, by the way, been published in both formats and is working now on something that will go straight to e-book, so we are not talking Luddite or literary snob.

I went off to think about my own Kindle reading and consider if in any instance the e-format had detracted from my enjoyment or understanding. With my hand on my heart I can say that my answer is a resounding ‘no’. I have read all kinds of things on Kindle and with the exception of some practical handbooks (which I was just too mean to buy in print!) I had no problem with any of them, including Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which is a whopper of a book, and an illustrated non-fiction monograph which I intended to buy in print but ordered on Kindle by mistake and to my own surprise did not regret it.

The whole idea of e-books being somehow less worthy comes up in research suggesting that e-reading impacts less deeply on our understanding and emotions than reading a print book, i.e. you would not e-read a book that you want to stay with you or that demands particular concentration. Well it’s hard to say if this applies to me, but what I can say is that I don’t retain the detail of books for as long as I would like or expect to but that this applies equally to all books whether in print or on an e-reader. And tell it to my fellow students on the Bath Spa MA who look very attached to their e-readers and presumably hope to retain their reading for quite some time.

When the conversation with the novelist moved into a wider circle there were the usual comments about the difficulties of ‘flicking back’ in an e-book. To some extent I agree with this, but then I’m not much of a flicker-backer. If I can’t understand what’s going on as it happens on the page, I’m likely to get frustrated and give up anyway. Nor do I like a book that assumes I’m going to refer regularly to a family tree, a map or whatever. But actually, a decent e-book (publishers please note!) should have a hyperlinked contents page and is always searchable, so I would have thought that the process of looking stuff up, although different, is perfectly possible. And in non-fiction, dealing with footnotes is actually much slicker in an e-book where they are hyperlinked. (No flicking or marking of pages required!)

Every format has advantage and disadvantages. I never buy fiction in hardback but I prefer hardback cookery books. I love the portability of e-books but will occasionally buy a hard copy of a book I particularly love simply to be able to hold it in my hand. A printed book, as someone has observed, is a souvenir of itself. So the last thing I’m suggesting is that e-books should take over the world. But it’s about choice. The e-format has extended that choice and brought more books to more people and has very little to prove. There are some minor snags, but for me they have been less significant than I expected and are far outweighed by the flexibility and portability of the medium. I don’t see any reason for e-books to be the second class citizens of the literary world. 


madwippitt said...

It is possible to like both. Although I do tend to buy copies of paper books if they are titles I know I'm going to want to read several times over. Why? I have no idea as they are equally as accessible. When looking for a title to re-read, it is also easier to browse my bookshelves, waiting for my eye to alight on something that appeals ... I do also miss being able to get my ebooks signed by the author. And the lack of need for a physical bookmark: I have collected lots over the years and am rather fond of some of them! But apart from that, I like my Kindle, I really do. Especially now that publishers have finally wised up and you can now buy new titles at less than the paper edition.

Susan Price said...

I think my first choice would always be an e-book now. I didn't expect that to be the case when I first bought an e-reader.
I don't find it any harder to 'flick back' in an e-reader than a paper book - and it's often considerably easier, especially with a book you want to take notes from. You simply bookmark it, then go to Notes, and it gives you a list of all your marks.

As Madwippit says, footnotes are a dream with an e-reader. With a paper book, the physical difficulty of keeping your place in the text while finding the note at the back, is always annoying. With an ebook, you tap the hyperlink, jump to the note, then tap the link again and jump back.

I don't agree at all with the idea that e-books are for fast, light reading, while a paper book is needed for something more serious. I think that's pure snobbery - or, being charitable, perhaps simply equating 'serious' with 'traditional.' - Are mobile only for acquaintances, and landlines reserved for serious, deep friendships?

Lydia Bennet said...

Yes I love my Kindle and prefer reading ebooks in almost every way. I do tend to buy poetry books in hard copy, they are light and slim anyway and I often buy them at lit events and book launches, signed by the author. The signing thing is a shame, but otherwise, I'd never choose to buy books in hard copy and when given a bagful at a festival I gave them away (apart from anything else the sheer weight is prohibitive to me). I buy hard cover fiction by a good friend at her launches but otherwise it's e all the way.

AliB said...

I've heard there are ways and means of collecting e-signatures, but confess I've never investigated. I would'nt want to give up either paperbacks or e-books and get cross when people talk as if liking one medium excludes being happy with the other. Ali B

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I'm with you - and I've read some very lengthy books on my Kindle, including the Chronicles of Barsetshire and China Mieville's mammoth and complicated Perdido Street Station. No problems at all with enjoyment or retention. In fact the more I read on my Kindle, the more I'm finding that I'm precipitated straight into the world of the book - and the easier it is to stay there. One of my very favourite things, I've discovered, is to read in the middle of the night with the light off - me and the subtle glow of the e-reader and the world of the story. Magic.

Lee said...

Too many notes on my SONY slow it down. Does this happen with a Kíndle?

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Don't think so, Lee, but then I don't make many notes. Almost none, really.

Reb MacRath said...

Poetry's about the only thing I only buy in hard copy. But I make exceptions for anything I know I'll read again...and again. Another exception: the rare books whose layout is part of their appeal: e.g., the books of Robert Greene, which use different fonts and colors, plus related anecdotes running on the sides. Greene's work becomes a mess when it appears on Kindle.