I HAVE seen the future of books, and it isn’t lumps of dead tree. Whether the iPod of books turns out to be Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes and Noble’s Nook or Sony’s Reader – or even Apple’s iPad – these readers will catch on. The e-ink screens favoured by everyone but Apple still can’t do colour or video, though they already match the book’s main advantages over computer screens: crisp contrast and pages that can be read in any light without hurting the eye.
But e-readers aren’t just as good as books – they are better than books. I love my library for its content, not its format, and the idea of having my library always with me, just as we all now carry our music collections on MP3 players, is nothing short of miraculous. Now I have a Kindle, I can search easily across the whole collection instead of flipping vainly through a shelf of heavy books for the right page. And if I think of a new book I want to try or buy, I can be reading it in seconds wherever I am. And when you want to annotate, you don’t have to interrupt your train of thought by scrabbling around for a pen – yes, you can scribble on e-readers, too.
There are those who will always love the feel of paper books. But there were those who loved manuscripts and scrolls more than the products of the printing press. Paper books will become a niche market, and those who couldn’t live without them will die and be replaced by generations who can’t imagine why we lugged those old-fashioned things around.
A FEW weeks ago I lost my diary and declared so in a round-robin email. About half of the responses were remonstrations about still having a paper diary.
To which I said, if I had to look at a screen and tap at a keyboard any more than I do already for work (and the odd bout of Facebook stalking), I would be sick. Or I’d go mad. Or I’d fall into a deep depression. The human eye was not made to bend itself on a chimera of pixels; combinations of gallium arsenide, polarised glass and mercury. It’s bad enough staring at one all day, every day in a professional capacity. I told my detractors that it is a pleasure to take out a pen and paper and write my appointments in it; also, to feel the crackle of well-penned pages.
Books are on a different level entirely. They are not just purveyors of information and language, but meaningful objects themselves. In the days before you snuggled up with your iPad, you snuggled up with your favourite book – and a damn sight more comforting it was. Rather than being confronted by endless choice and another shifty screen, you had one story, with one typeface, framed in nice neat pages and a solidity that can only be described as earthy and life-affirming. The brain could settle, the soul engage. Tell me how that’s possible on a machine that is constantly proffering something else? Those beguiled by the promise of endless choice are chasing the wrong rainbow, particularly when it comes to books.