The Descent of the Book

It is 2012 and talk of Kindles and eBooks is common place – we see them on TV, in shops, on wish lists and on the tube. We may also see them in numbers: an increase by 188% in digital fiction sales in the first half of 2012, while physical book sales are dropping by 0.4% year on year. Stepping back from instinctive sentiments to defend the book, we have to remind ourselves that civilisation is driven by progress.

Out of scribbling with ink and a quill came the pen and then keyboard; each advancement improved the next. However, is the evolution of book to eBook really advancing and improving the words themselves? The purpose of a book is to be read and this can be achieved whether the words are legibly printed on wallpaper or hundreds of china bowls. Reading Pride and Prejudice on a screen will not improve the story. Yet, there are several more practical aspects of this Kindle vs book debate which need addressing, particularly for students who rely on books for their course. Sometimes we can’t afford to be romantic about things.

I was not aware how much of a money-saver a Kindle could be until I worked out the sum total of books for a single Autumn module. Physical books reach a figure of £199.68 compared to the Kindle versions (plus the cheapest Amazon kindle at £69) at £157.00, a difference of over £40.  Statistics of environmental improvements continue to give the Kindle an advantage; in 2003 five million hard copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the equivalent of 150,000 trees, were sold.

Practical improvements are coupled with these financial and environmental gains; firstly, Kindles are much lighter – for an English student this means not having to drag around that 1,344 page Shakespearean Anthology. Secondly, using a Kindle allows you to read whatever you like in public (not to mention in a seminar). We may pause to wonder whether Fifty Shades of Grey, which became the first book to sell more than one million copies on Amazon’s eBooks, would have shot up in popularity if its physical cover had betrayed and embarrassed its readers. The Kindle gives the reader more privacy, where blazing book covers could reveal all.

Yet for all these statistics and technical attributes the Kindle is still uniform and flat and no amount of personal covers will save them from being robotic clones: cold, dull silver slabs.

They do not give us the musty scent of a second hand book nor the fresh smell of a new Blackwell’s classic. Aesthetically, there is a great satisfaction in the mishmash of colours on a shelf of books. To hold a book in your hand seems more solid, more physical and also gives you the pride in seeing the bookmark shuffle along the thick pages. A book is personal; each thumb-flick edge, each smudge, makes a copy unique. The Kindle’s metallic shine is certainly more wearing and protective, but its technological stillness sucks the personality out of the book.

Although eBooks have become a popular and easy medium of reading, and for a student the financial and practical perks are inviting, we cannot forget the boxes and the shelves and attic and libraries of books we, as a society, have collected over the years. The physical book may share the spread of literature with the eBook, yet it should not, and has not been, left to fall into extinction.

Eve Wersocki Morris

ArtsExploring Arts

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