I can’t remember the last time I bought a physical book. I was given one about three years ago, but I only read it out of a sense of duty (it was connected with my work at that time). But it’s been even longer since I bought a book that wasn’t electronic.
When I got my first e-reader (an old Sony thing), I imagined I’d use it solely for free classics, all those books I told myself I really should read at some point. I downloaded text files from the Project Gutenberg website and converted them to PDF (because I wasn’t too keen on how epubs looked on that old machine). I thought I’d still buy and read physical books.
Fast-forward to today—my Kindle is in daily use, and I can’t imagine going back to reading paper.
But e-books aren’t perfect. Like anything, there are pros and cons — and sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other.
Pro—nobody can see what I’m reading.
I’m not embarrassed about what I read, but I’m also a private person. I don’t always read books I particularly like, either—sometimes I read books because I want to know what all the fuss is about. When I’m doing this, I don’t relish the thought of someone judging me based on that. I don’t want to be classified as a reader of such-and-such rubbish. I don’t want people to mentally pigeon-hole my reading habits based on one book.
E-books are popular with readers of genre fiction more so than of literary fiction, and I think the anonymity of e-reading goes some way to explaining this. ‘Education’ tells us we should be reading ‘intellectual’ books, and that only great literature is worthy of our time. On one level we buy into this, yet we still yearn for simple good stories. We want the thrill of a chase, or a book that’s a bit close to the bone. Sometimes we want popcorn entertainment. Sometimes—maybe much of the time—we want to relax with a good book rather than wrestle with a great one.
Con—nobody can see what I’m reading.
But there are advantages to displaying reading material. If I have a particular book in my hands it can work as an ice-breaker to start a conversation. I may want to impress others with what I am reading. It is part of the appeal of coffee-table books, those tomes that get displayed at home to show what kind of people we are, even if they are never opened.
I still have physical books, and I still store them on shelves. But I don’t touch them now. They are pretty much there for decoration, and they don’t represent what I’ve been reading over the past few years. I like the idea of having a ‘library’, a space where I can be surrounded by books, but it would be purely cosmetic, because all my reading is done on a little device with a plain black cover.
Sometimes, we want to advertise our tastes to others. Sometimes we want to draw admiring looks, or even provoke arguments. Sometimes, the anonymity of e-readers keeps us too far apart from others.
Pro—I can have a vast library of books available to read at any time.
I love the idea that through one small device I have access to more reading material than I can ever consume. I can select new titles without having to move from my chair. I no longer need to travel into town, find a bookshop, then hope it has what I want in stock. Now I can order practically anything I can think of, and be reading it a minute later.
I’ve just checked, and I have over two thousand e-books. I can’t imagine how much space they’d take up as physical objects. I’d need a separate room at least. We’d need a bigger house, one we can’t afford. But with e-books, I am no longer constrained by physical objects, or physical places. I can have this vast library with me at all times. And with apps, I don’t even need a dedicated e-reader. I just need my phone.
When I go on holiday, I don’t have to think about what books to take with me beforehand. If I have the urge to read an old Harry Harrison short, I can do just that in a moment. If I decide to get all intellectual and finally try some Proust, there is nothing stopping me. If I want to re-read Gormenghast, I don’t have to hunt for the book on my shelves.
I have instant access to more books than I could ever read. I am spoilt for choice.
Con—I can have a vast library of books available to read at any time.
With thousands of books, and access to thousands more, I find it hard to keep track of what I’ve read and what I haven’t. There are books on my ‘to read’ list that I’m starting to think will never be opened.
How many books can I read in my lifetime? How much of my free time can I dedicate to reading?
At the moment I average two or three books a week, which equates to somewhere over a hundred a year. Over a decade I might get through one thousand books, maybe pushing towards two thousand. I might finish all the books I already have over the next twenty years.
But, of course, by then I’ll have downloaded even more, and I’ll still have a backlog to get through. Those books on my ‘to read’ list will still be sitting there, reminding me that I’m too often skimping on the harder reads, settling for popcorn when I should be putting my mind through a workout.
And I’ll feel bad about that, so I’ll download something that looks fun, just to cheer myself up.
But I’ll still be drowning in a sea of never-ending titles.
Pro—with the ease of creating e-books, publishing is open to everyone.
I have found some fantastic books over the last few years, and very few of them have been through traditional publishers or physical bookstores. Many of my new favourite authors have gone the independent-publishing route, and are making a living through their art, which gives them the time to produce even more books.
There are stories of authors being rejected by publishing companies because their books are ‘not commercial’, or that their particular genre is unpopular at the moment, then going on to sell thousands off their own efforts. Yes, their books might not be ‘commercial’, but in a connected world with billions of readers, there are always going to be enough readers who enjoy a particular style to keep these authors going.
And, because anyone can write and publish a book now, people can take chances. Want to kill off your main character in the first act? No problem. Want to write a book in first person future tense? Give it a shot. Want to release your story as a series of shorts? Hey, with indie-publishing, you can do anything.
Of course, not all these ideas will work. Many will be unpopular with the majority of readers. But that shouldn’t be a reason to stop trying. If there are only a handful of readers who connect with your books in each country, that can still give the indie-published author a sustainable career. And for these readers with these specific tastes, the fact that someone is writing these bizarre books that they love is incredible. Finally, they don’t have to rely on mass-market books chosen by some arbitrary gatekeepers for their suitability to create money for a large company. Finally, individuals can write what they want and set it free for those select few who will appreciate it.
The freedom of e-books means everyone is free to create. And that means more and more books. If many of them don’t float your boat, there will still be thousands that do.
Cons—with the ease of creating e-books, publishing is open to everyone.
Since getting into e-books, I’ve read some absolute rubbish. I’ve found myself questioning if the author is writing in their second language. I’ve found myself picking apart the writing because it’s more fun than trawling through the turgid prose and unrealistic dialogue in search of an engaging story. I’ve read books with so many gaping plot holes, and such a lack of logic, that I question if the author was thinking at all, or if they even read books.
How much of my time can I afford to waste reading this dross?
There is so much information on e-book marketing out there that it is no longer a case of judging a poor book by a poor cover. Some of this rubbish has fantastic covers, and the authors clearly know a thing or two about effective marketing. They are well-formatted, and it looks like care has been taken on their creation. And yet, the writing itself is still terrible. Often, the reader only finds this out when they’ve already started reading.
I don’t like leaving a book unfinished, and I don’t like the idea of throwing something away (or deleting it). And so I feel that I have to waste my time and storage on trash.
When everyone is free to publish, where is the quality control?
Three reasons why e-books are fantastic, and the same three reasons showing their problems. Which ones are right? That’s up to you. Personally, I realise there are issues with e-books, but I love the positives they bring. When people talk of e-books destroying reading, I remember that over the last few years, as I have stopped buying physical books, I have been consuming more and more. I read more now than I ever did.
Are e-books good or bad? That’s not a sensible question.
The printing press can be used for uplifting tracts or hate-filled propaganda. Film and TV can give thought-provoking drama or mindless gossip. Radio can fill our minds or simply be background noise. Stories told round the camp fire can be thrilling adventures or ego-filled monologues.
E-books are simply another way of presenting information and telling stories. They are not good or bad in themselves.
It is, as it always has been, the words themselves that matter.