February 29th, 2012

laibach: kitten

Books and e-readers and that

As amusing as sentences like "What be this strange futurebox?" and "All of my colleagues have [e-readers] and most of my friends - people I previously thought of as human beings with hearts, souls and inner lives" are, I must vehemently disagree with Lucy Mangan's recent Stylist column decrying the use of e-readers.

For a start, I think it is rather obvious that Ms. Mangan does not have to make the 2-4 hour daily commute to/from her job that many Londoners must. If she did, she would be as immensely grateful as I am that I have not had to carry dead-tree editions of The Life of Samuel Johnson and Le Morte d'Arthur around with me on my journey. Excuse me, I have to go on a tangent now. Speaking of the latter, I feel like people, particularly my high school English teachers, have been keeping things from me. Why oh why did no one ever tell me that it is, in fact, hilarious? I realise this will have been obvious to people who majored in literature and humanities and the like, but for this scientist, discovering that Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail is actually not a parody but a faithful re-enactment of the stories contained in L M d'A was a revelation. If you were an Arthurian knight whose history was being retold centuries later, you really were in danger of encountering dwarves who would leap out from behind trees and whack your horse on the head. The dwarf would then force you to fight two other knights and when you defeated them, would suddenly and inexplicably experience a change of allegiance, reveal that he knew exactly where you were going and would help you on your quest. Castles populated entirely by women were a terrible peril for all good knights. Every sexual encounter seemed to beget new knights determined to kill their fathers. Also, every joust ended in a bonfire's worth of shattered shields and lances. It's a wonder there were any trees left in the forests in Arthurian England. And do not get me started on Merlin, who reveals everyone's fate in the first ninety pages, including his own, thereby completely spoiling the rest of the book. Within four pages, he manages to fall in love and gets himself sealed up in a tree by a witch, removing him from the remainder of the story just as the reader has decided his character is the most interesting one in it. This was a clever literary device in the fifteenth century? What? I mean, it's amusing, but no wonder modern storytellers are so obsessed with giving Merlin something other than a deus-ex-machina persona.

Anyway, my point is that without this wonderful Kindle invention, I would never have read a good many of the classics of English literature that have been the bulk of my intake over the past two years, mostly because (a) it would never have occurred to me to seek them out without the assistance of Project Gutenberg and (b) I would never have voluntarily carried such massive tomes around in my handbag.

Much as I love my dead-tree Folio (and paperback and hardcover) editions of my favourite books, they're not without flaws. In a country in which you pay a premium for space, owning paper copies of all your books is a luxury that many people can't afford, whether they're a single person crammed into a tiny studio apartment or a spouse in a two-bed flat with a partner and a couple of kids. If my eyes are tired, I can't resize the text to a larger font so that I can still read, or if I have a headache from looking at screens all day, I can't activate the Text-to-Speech function that will read to me. (Granted, the Kindle does this in the creepy voice of our future robot overlords, but it is an option.) Both of the aforementioned also demonstrate the increased accessibility to books that e-readers afford people with vision problems.

I admit that loaning and gifting electronic books isn't quite as fun as doing the same with paper editions - you can only unwrap an e-reader once - but owning one hasn't stopped me from giving and receiving paper copies of books with pleasure.

So while I'm happy to stay old-school at home because I happen to be one of the people who can indulge in the luxury of space for my dead-tree editions, I can't agree that e-books are "eroding our humanity". They've made it possible for me to spend more, not less, time reading and increased the scope of my choice of material. I think this means they're enforcing - possibly even improving - my humanity.