My little electronic friend
Are we on the cusp of the greatest revolution in information technology since Gutenberg invented movable type, as we keep being told? Or is the e-book a fuss in the pan, a flash about nothing?
No one knows yet, of course. We shall only know in a hundred years, by which point civilisation might have disappeared altogether. If it has, the vast infrastructure of electricity generation, wireless transmission, online credit, all that expensive and unimaginably intricate and interdependent system that lets us download books and music and carry them about in a little package that fits in a shirt pocket, will be gone. Vanished. When we press an ON button, nothing will happen. The night will be dark again. As for myself, Im not optimistic; I think the human race will have a pretty tough time in the years ahead. A technology that depends entirely on a system of delivery so complex and so utterly out of our personal control is too flimsy for my liking. A printing press I can understand; a book is a grateful thing to the hand and the eye; well still be able to produce those when all the systems go down. Itll be slower, but I think that will actually suit the working speed of the human mind better than the overwhelmingly instantaneous abundance of e-stuff.
In the meantime, I do enjoy my iPod Touch. The Kindle and the Sony Reader both seem clever enough, but theyre a little too big, and theyre hedgehogs that can only do one sort of thing; the iPod Touch is a fox that can do many, and its small enough to sit in a pocket without being noticed until you remember it. And on it I can read the whole of Shakespeare, dozens and dozens (probably hundreds, and possibly thousands, if I looked a little further) of out-of-copyright works of literature (the whole of War and Peace, folded up so flat among the electrons that it takes up no space at all!), and any new book thats available to buy as an App. And there are more and more of those. And I can change the typeface and increase its size till its easy on the eye.
And when I dont want to read I can play silly games with it, shooting pegs out of holes, or swiping vainly at an electronic cricket ball, or bashing an air-hockey puck around with very satisfactory sound effects.
And when I tire of that I can listen to my entire collection of music.
And when Ive done that I can try to emulate David Hockney and paint little pictures with the Brushes App.
And so on. Its extraordinary. To a person on my ignorance, its one of those examples of technology that (in Arthur C. Clarkes phrase) are indistinguishable from magic.
Of course, its not perfect as a reading device; the screen is very small, and you have to swipe it every couple of seconds to turn the pages. And as a professional writer Im uneasily aware that e-books raise all sorts of implications for copyright and so on that I ought to think about.
But for the moment Im having fun with my little electronic friend; and when civilisation finally goes under I shall still have my books.
This smirking silver object
They tell you that an e-book is like a book, only better, but it is no more a book than an iPod is a record player. Rather than turn over the first page, you turn on your portable reader system and chose from your selection of novels. There is no enticing covers, no helpful blurbs, no annoying author pictures, no embarrassing puffs; the shining screen which displays each ‘page’ does not bend or turn, nor do the pages face one another; there are no spines to protect, and there is no need to put on your reading glasses because the size of the font can be adjusted to your own personal vision. E-books are smart and sleek and lightweight rather than dog-eared and coffee-stained and bulky. The book of the future is all memory and no past.
I know this because I am trying to read Lord Jim as an e-book, and the experience is no different from trying to read Lord Jim as a PDF file on a computer: the words are flat and fleshless, without substance, sound or shadow. The opening line, which rustles when on paper – ‘He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull’ – now glows like a stagnant trade-test transmission. Beaming out of its flat-box, the words lose their grain and texture. When I throw the thing down in frustration it is without the triumphant pleasure I usually get from discarding a disagreeable book – the sense of a judgement made or a stand proudly taken – because I don’t even know what the object is that I’m discarding. I’m sure however, that if this is what books had always been like, Conrad would not have bothered producing Lord Jim.
I like the dissolution of space that takes place when I read, the business of being neither here nor there, the way in which reading makes me lose all sense of time and how I blend into a book like Lord Jim. But e-books are a way of avoiding the risks of reading. While the literariness of Conrad’s novel is mockingly impersonated, this boastful piece of technology is interested only in itself, it is all medium and no message. E-books are antagonistic to the seductions of reading, distrustful of the violent intimacy between reader and writer. ‘Reading a good book,’ Brodsky said, ‘is not much different from a love affair’, but reading Lord Jim in this way is like being in an online chat room.
Holding at arm’s length this smirking silver object I am reminded of what Barthes said about the way in which, when reading, ‘all the body’s emotions are present, mingled, coiled up: fascination, emptiness, pain, voluptuousness; reading produces an overwhelmed body’. There is no body in this library, despite the death of the reader.
A cautious welcome
A young man I know is in Liberia, working to supply clean water. It is exhausting and often dispiriting, so, to relax, re reads. But it’s impossible to send him crate-loads of books. In the past he might have been stuck reading the same novel over and over again. Now he has 200 e-books. In Britain another eager reader, with plenty of access to bookshops and libraries, also has her Sony Reader in her bag, so she can finish a novel on the bus.
Electronic books are here, and they’re great. How can anyone be ‘against’ them? When I asked a devotee he scribbled a quick Q&A. ‘Why don’t writers like them? 1 Because they’re not book books. 2 They’re worries about copyright. 3 They are new. Why will the public like them? 1 Easy. 2 Cheap. 3 New.
‘Easy’, ‘cheap’ and ‘new’ are three magic words of marketing. THe novelty and ease are self-evident, and people do, alas, go for cheap deals, even if they don’t need them: witness the Apple App store for the iPhone, or Walmart. To survive, publishers are going to sell a lot more e-books at lower prices. Companies are already converting their entire catalogue (‘where they have appropriate rights’ they say carefully), even creating enhanced e-books with embedded video, audio, games and graphics. The key phrase is ‘appropriate rights’. Writers live in justifiable fear of sharks zooming off into the electronic depths with our royalties, and indeed our livlihood. Agents, authors and professional bodies have to fight for copyright to be respected and for adequate royalties. The digitising of an entire library may be a boon to scholarship but it can also amount to old-fashioned piracy – I’m waiting with interest, to put it mildly, for the final ‘fairness hearing’ of the American case against Google, set for 18 February 2010.
So e-books raise huge issues of intellectual property. But are they a threat to books as we know them? I love the feel and look of a book, the smell of a musty library, the sight of bookshelves crammed and overflowing. But people will always love real books and the best way to show this is to have the physical version on your shelves (both to enjoy it and be judged by it: that sort of cultural performance will never die). The new technology simply means that, as with music and video, readers will be exposed to a range of literature that they couldn’t possibly imagine – or carry. We may literally look back and say, ‘Can you remember when you only had one book in your bag, and it might be a 1,200- page hardback by Neal Stephenson…?’
Most authors want to reach the maximum number of people – e-books are like magic paper that allows us to do this. Let’s be wary, but welcome them too.
Lovers of printed books will be heartened that no one contributing to these pages believes they will disappear. But I am haunted by another development: the recommendation that within ten years all children should do their GCSEs and A-levels on computers. It comes from Ofqual, the ‘exams watchdog’. ‘Would it be a great loss to the world if we all lost our great handwriting?’ asks its chairwoman Kathleen Tattersall in her annual report.
Yes, it would. Some writers work happily enough on screens; for others, pressing a pen against paper is an essential part of the creative process. My own experiences is that composing on a computer encourages laziness: I know that I can easily go back and alter or shuffle a problematic sentence, so I make less of an effort to get it right the first time. It is like building a house without bothering to put down foundations.
Just as importantly, handwriting is an expression of one’s personality. Would a love letter mean half as much if set in an anonymous type? Of course not. One wonders, not for the first time, whether the people who run our exam system are chosen primarily for their obtuseness and philistinism.