So, which are better: e-books or paper books? Chances are you – and everybody else on the bus – has an opinion. You only need to type the words ‘kindle debate’ into Google to be overwhelmed with over seven million hits. Somewhat ironically, a lot of ink (or perhaps keyboard keys) have been used over this question.
Ever since kindles emerged in 2007, they’ve sparked controversy and galvanised thel book community into action. But is this debate even worth having? Does it matter in what form people are reading books? In a world where literature has to fight tooth and nail (or should that be spine and cover) against countless other avenues of entertainment and media, surely it’s important to encourage reading in any form. A way to read literature anywhere, and to carry thousands of books in one slim tablet, looks from this angle like the answer to every bookworm’s prayers. And yet there is such animosity against the humble kindle. There is even a National Indie Book Day (March 21st if you’re planning a boycott of Amazon.com) where people are encouraged to eschew electronic books and celebrate local independent bookshops and their physical, paper progeny.
So what’s the argument championing the paper form? Only a cursory glance at Google will bombard the amateur researcher with so many justifications for the incredible value of physical copy, the unending mental benefits of books and the vital perfection of paperbacks that the reader is left wondering how humanity could possibly survive without them. Just six minutes of reading a physical book, we are told, reduces stress by 68%, keeps the brain functioning on a high level, and staves off Alzheimer’s. This is not, apparently, true of the e-book: a Norwegian 2014 study found readers of Kindles were ‘significantly worse’ at remembering the order of events in a novel than those who read it in paperback. Anne Mangen stated: “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print book provides”. And then there’s the emotional attachment the public have to their dear old paper Penguin pals. Countless childhood memories of bulging shelves, bright covers and hours spent searching fondly for ‘that specific book’ means it is incredibly difficult to abandon paper copy completely. E-books also contribute significantly to the death of independent bookshops: sales of print books fell by over 6.5% in 2013, and the trend has continued. Although ‘indie bookshops’ have recently made a comeback on the highstreets, e-books are undoubtedly a threat to this endangered breed.
But if e-books are really ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything’, why do we keep on using them? Why are there so many enthusiastic kindle-ites extolling their fully-charged literary virtues? Well, Kindles are incredibly easy to use, to store, and to carry. You can purchase a huge amount of literature through them for almost nothing (the complete works of Dickens is 2p), and explore new writing that might not have otherwise been discovered. It can enlarge text for the hard of sight, it has a light to read in the dark – it even contains a dictionary. Who wouldn’t want the entire book-world right at their fingertips, at the touch of a pad?
It is at this point that I have to admit that I am biased – I work in an independent bookshop myself, and have been indoctrinated to shun e-books. Yet, despite my rigorous toeing of the party line, I can see their appeal. Yes, I cannot imagine ever finding a fond message penned into the front of a kindle cover or finding old train tickets amongst its non-existent pages, but I’m still envious of my friends who have entire slim, sexy, personalised libraries that they can carry around in their pockets. And surely, as mentioned earlier, the point of these different approaches is simply to encourage and enable reading in any form? I’m convinced e-books and paper books can work together to make the world a more literary, and happier, place. Just don’t drop either in the bath.