Thursday 2 February 2012


I am a member of the resistance. I like books, and I don't yet have an e-reader. But I'm doing my best to give them a fair chance. I've tried one, and I have to admit that it was better than I thought it would be, and I am sensible of the advantages.

So here's a discussion of e-readers from a sceptic who's doing her best to be fair.

Convenience: I can't really agree with people who complain about how heavy and difficult to hold a book is. Encyclopaedias aside, they aren't that big. Even the heftiest novels are comfortably out of the region of real unwieldiness.

I understand downloading books instantly is an attraction for a lot of people. I personally like to ration books, otherwise I read them too fast and run out, and I actually rather like the anticipation of waiting for it to arrive; if I'm in a hurry, I buy it from an actual shop, although that's pricier: somewhere e-books win. So for me, instant access isn't really an advantage, but it probably is for the majority.

Portability is the big one here. But in all honesty, I don't think it's such a big one as all that, unless you travel by plane a lot. Any reading you do at home - which for a lot of people is going to be most of your reading - portability isn't likely to be an issue. If you like to read while commuting, tbh I can't really see that it makes that much difference. You'd usually only take one book with you anyway, and an e-reader isn't a great deal smaller or lighter than a short-ish paperback. I guess it would mean you could take The Count of Monte Cristo with you as easily as [I can't think of a book that's well known for being very thin]. The portability of an e-reader comes into its own when you're going away, but even then I can't see it revolutionising my life. If you're going away for a weekend or even a week or two, even if you read quickly you're not likely to get through more than a few inches of bookshelf. I probably take more books than the average person - I read fast and I usually take more books than I end up reading - and I don't have difficulty finding room for them, even for flying. I can't see an e-reader making a huge amount of difference to me. If you were trying to fly with hand luggage only it would make a big difference, but for the majority I can't see that it's as much of an advantage over paper as its advocates would like to tell you.

So for convenience, the e-reader wins, but not by a landslide.

Cost: E-readers are expensive: from what I can find out, quite a few of them are now £100 or less, but not a lot less. But the books are cheaper, so it would more than pay for itself if you bought more than a few books. For the Kindle, it seems, you can also get thousands of free books, through some arrangement that I don't quite understand. If you were going to switch all your reading to digital, it would almost certainly work out cheaper, unless you only read library books.

On the other hand, if you would only use it for going on holiday, it's at very least going to be longer before the savings overtake the cost. And if, like me, you get books from the library more often than the bookshop, and most of the ones you own were given you for presents, the savings are again less.

So e-readers win again, but not for everyone.

Book Availability: I'm not certain about all of this, but so far as I can see, few books are published these days in hard copy only, but some are only published digitally. Books published before the proliferation of e-readers are being digitised, and while I don't have any statistic on how many have been already, an educated guess is that all or most popular books have, probably not so many less popular one, but since there's a finite number of them they eventually all will be. The majority of books are available in either format.

So e-readers win there too, but still not overwhelmingly, although it seems quite likely that their advantage will increase in the future.

Technology: Paper books will never become obsolete in the foreseeable future. You'll always be able to read it, until it wears out - which if you take care of it is likely to be decades even if you read it quite regularly. E-readers are likely to wear out faster, if other electronic gadgets are anything to go by, and it's in the interests of their producers to try and make you buy another one every so often. Now, people who must have the latest model of everything are going to want an e-reader anyway, so the mere fact that they will bring out new versions isn't really a victory for paper. But if new formats of e-book come out, will your old reader support them? So as well as the trouble of replacing it, that knocks out a portion of the cost advantage, even if you're able to transfer all your old-format books onto the new device - which would mean every new generation would have to support increasingly more formats of e-book. Will that happen?

Paper books don't need power. Energy costs, although probably not great, will take out some more of the cost advantage of e-readers, and some of the convenience.

So here's a definite victory for the low-tech.

Presents: I don't know about anyone else, but I don't really like the idea of giving someone a file for Christmas. There's nothing to wrap up or open - so far as I can find out you give it by email or give a voucher. It's cheaper, but you know, and you know that the giftee knows, that you opted for the cheaper option. It's something you might give as a 'remembered your birthday!' present but not a gift to a close friend or family member.

Paper wins this round too, but it's not a very important victory. There are plenty of other things to give, and I doubt many people, even e-reader fans, would be disappointed at being given a hard copy.

Experience: At the end of the day, it's just not the same as a book. Some people like it more, some are more-or-less indifferent, some don't like it. The one I tried was a Kindle Keyboard 3g.

E-ink screens are pretty good: none of the eye-straining glare of a backlit screen. But they still have some reflections, so you can't hold it at some angles if you want to be able to read it.

And there's loading screens. They're brief loading screens, but it still feels like staring at a loading screen, when you've been staring at loading screens for a fair chunk of the day already, now you have them on your books as well. Between every page. It's not the time: it's not really longer than it takes to turn a paper page, even though it's every page rather than every two, but it does break the flow of reading. The combination of loading screens and one-page-at-a-time presentation made it a lot less immersive, I found.

I like the feel of a book: e-readers are rigid, and even a hardback book is yielding. I like the smell of paper and ink, and even if they put that onto an e-reader, I imagine it would feel wrong: I'd just know it was fake.

One big thing was the buttons: the page-turn buttons are exactly in the place you want to put your hands to hold the d*mned thing. That's presumably for convenience, but it's bl**dy daft. Put it where I can reach it by moving my thumb a centimetre: it's still less effort than turning a page, and I won't press it by accident every two minutes. Then you get an extra loading screen to turn the page back.  That's only on that particular device, although the new version of Kindle has the same design flaw, and I have a suspicion that most e-readers might turn out to have some such annoying feature. I definitely wouldn't buy one without taking it for a good test-drive first.

The other biggie for me is the permanence of books. I can put my book down, and I know that short of an accident that would do at least as much damage to an e-reader, the most that can happen is I'll lose my page, and it might take me two minutes to find it again. It's there. It won't run out of batteries, I won't accidentally press a button and make it do something unexpected, it can't in any way just get wiped clean. It doesn't need an instruction manual. I don't have to worry that it's going to break, and if it somehow does, 99% of problems can be fixed with sellotape, and the rest are destruction by fire and total drenching - most water accidents leave a book perfectly legible, if a little wrinkled - both of which would destroy an e-reader too.

This one's a lot harder to objectively judge. Reliability comes out in favour of paper - but perhaps ought to have been in the previous section, likewise design flaws. Immersiveness is probably going to be better in books for most people, too, and screen reflections aren't going to improve it for anyone. But these things might not be big issues for a lot of people, and the rest is personal opinion.

For me, the experience of an e-reader just isn't nearly as nice as a physical book. For me, these things would probably deal-breakers even if the advantages were more substantial. But that's me. As I said in the various sections, for many people the advantages of portability and cost will be greater, and I'm sure that for many people the experience is as good or better than paper.

I might get an e-reader at some point, if the price comes down quite a bit more, but I wouldn't want to replace books with it. If I thought a book was worth spending money on, I'd want it in hard copy, and if I just wanted to read it once I get it from the library for free. I don't think I'd use it except for digital-only books, which are few, or possibly for going on holiday, but as I said, I never have trouble finding space for a few books, and on my holidays I'd definitely rather have the better experience.

So I'm sticking with the resistance.

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