The very first book I ever read was about a little dog that got lost and had an adventure. At one stage it befriended a raccoon and learned to live at night so it could eat trash. I loved this story so much that I learned to read just so I could get through the story faster than I could with my mother reading me a chapter a day. Since then, reading has been a constant companion in my life. There is no form of entertainment capable of holding me in one place for longer than a good book, and nothing I find harder to stop doing.
So because of this, I viewed the advent of the Kindle with suspicion. I loved books, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to stop reading them. I’d tried to read books online and it felt like reading YouTube comments or Wikipedia articles. The difference between that experience and a real book was like the difference between popcorn and steak. I liked the weight of books. I liked the smell, the heft, the cover art and the feeling of achievement when you closed it. Notwithstanding all of those things, I rather nervously purchased my Kindle two years ago along with my first e-book (The Name of the Wind).
Since then I’ve bought eighty-seven more, which is a slightly worrying number. I now spend more on books than I do on coffee, the standard first-world test of a significant expense. My reading habits changed so quickly I am not sure any actual time elapsed. There are a number of problems with reading without a Kindle. I never used to spend much time complaining about these, because I loved reading and I had no alternative. As soon as I realized that the Kindle solved these problems, I never looked back. I thought that I loved reading books, but it turned out that I just love reading.
The first and most obvious problem is that you have to buy physical books, and these are incredibly expensive. Take a recently released book as an example: Lee Child’s latest novel, A Wanted Man. The Kindle e-book is $9.49.
If I want it from Whitcoulls, just the paperback, I’m looking at $37.99. That is damn-near four times as much, which is loco.
If I even want to get close to the Kindle price point I’ve got to buy it second-hand, but even then the cheapest it gets is $13 (with shipping).
Sure you could get it out from the library for free, but you’re lazy, and besides, it’s raining in the world I have constructed to win this argument. You also don’t have a car, you can’t find your library card, and the librarian gave you a look the last time you didn’t want to pay your overdues. If you’re reading a series, they will definitely have every book in the series except the one you want. Some people love going to the library. I’m just not one of them.
Assuming you’ve bought your wood pulp, you read it (the best part). Then if you’re like I was, you discover the second problem. The book gets consigned to one of a number of piles around the house, followed by optimistic packing in boxes, followed by unpacking when you’ve read all the piles a few times (in my case, around four). At that stage it gets really hard to decide which one you want to read the most. I hope you don’t feel like moving house anytime soon either, because I’m not helping.
Some may argue that it’s all worthwhile – that these physical objects have value, and as they get progressively more dog-eared and stained they accumulate meta-stories of their own. Personally, I’ve never recognized a stain on or rip in a book as being from a particularly noteworthy event. Usually it’s the Great Pie Spill of 2003, or that time it slipped out from under the plate and closed on the pizza.
There are a heap of lesser benefits. I can read my books on my phone if I’m stuck somewhere without my Kindle. I can go on holiday without carting kilograms of real books. I can read hard-to-find or out-of-print books (I’ve rediscovered a few classics from my childhood). I can read in bed in the winter without getting cold hands. I can read the next book in a series mere seconds after finishing the previous one.
Given all this, why would anyone prefer to read physical books? You pay much more in money, time and convenience for the same story. You can read twenty-five reasons here – some spurious (magic? 8-tracks?), but others are genuinely convincing. To all that, I respond that I still like the things I liked about books before! I just don’t have time for them. I have an ambition that one day I will have a house that will have a library with comfortable chairs and thousands of my favourite books, all in hardcover. I will sit in there all day, wearing a dressing gown and slippers and drinking Cognac in front of an open fire. Right now all I can afford is the Cognac, but I’m working on it.
My fellow ruminant, Mr. Morgan Davie, eloquently suggests that the presence of content in the physical world is of significant and subtle importance. It’s hard to argue with the idea that the world should contain more of the things that you like (and fewer of those you don’t), but it’s an empty argument. Shops do not tell us who we are; they are a symptom, not a cause. Neither is their mere presence an endorsement. Those bookstores that remain financially viable do so because they are selling the things that people want to buy. These may be beautiful old leather-bound editions of Dickens, but these days you are more likely to find Confessions of a Guidette. Not all stories are the ultimate embodiment of culture, and if the bookshops can’t find any other way to make money then I won’t be sorry to see them go.