The joy of e-reading

Prospect Magazine

The joy of e-reading

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It’s a shame some libraries are closing, but this is not the end of civilisation. Quite the opposite

Austerity shows up a nation’s soft spots like lemon juice on cuts. The British, it turns out, are a people who will accept the sale of their water, but not their forests. Radio 6 Music, we have now discovered, is one of their most cherished institutions. And libraries? Well, perhaps some very strong resistance there was always on the cards. For many years, these places have been a progressive totem, a route to betterment for the motivated poor and, more importantly, their children. Among all the public services, libraries occupy a unique position: their clients are neither forced to use them, as they are hospitals and schools, nor capable of overusing them, as the indignant right so loves to claim of benefits. Libraries, in short, are almost unbegrudgeable.

Which makes the councils proposing to shut more than 450 across the country look like vandals. In response, successful authors such as Julia Donaldson have come forward to describe their own debt to libraries. Alan Bennett called it “child abuse” to close them. In a frothy attack that became a viral battle cry, Philip Pullman even compared the idea to “the fanatical Bishop Theophilus in the year 391 laying waste to the Library of Alexandria.”

Although an admirable man in many ways, Pullman is prone—and perhaps partial—to hyperbole. But the heat of his rage does spring from a wider fire, evidenced by the 22,000 people who have spread his words on Facebook, and the thousands more who have staged sit-ins and shush-ins at dozens of different protests across the country.

In many cases, the protesters are surely right. Although libraries often look dowdy and half-loved, many are also used and useful. Children’s borrowing is increasing year-on-year. Yet the case for preservation can be oversold. It must be at least imaginable that the benefits of some libraries cannot justify their cost. I also wonder whether the protesters, in trumpeting the joy of reading, might do more harm than good. Listening to a declaration of how wonderful books are (World Book Night, on 5th March, was one recent example), what I hear most loudly is a group of people feeling they have to say so. No one troubles to declare this for computer games. Instead of making books seem fun, the well-intentioned merely spread a whiff of burning martyr round the act of reading.

The kernel of this attitude, I think, is the idea that all books—even bad ones—are endangered objects, and therefore intrinsically virtuous. As rival electronic entertainments encroach on long-form reading’s patch, people have begun to see something wholesome in Pullman’s stories of a boyhood spent in libraries, while it is conventional to see the opposite in a child devoted to his Xbox. One might argue that books offer a better education than games, but they are also more isolating—there are no two-player books—and just as prone to being overused. “Human beings can lose their lives in libraries,” Saul Bellow wrote in Him with His Foot in His Mouth. “They ought to be warned.”

The talk of a future in which children cannot access books is also not just wrong, but backwards. E-readers—already available for £52, and falling—offer an incomparably more convenient way for anyone to find good things. While defending libraries, surely there is also time to promote the fact that, thanks to Project Gutenberg and Google Books, every child in the country can now download virtually any out-of-copyright book for nothing. (Piracy will doubtless do the same for most in-copyright books too, as may digital lending, though this is less cause for celebration.)

The thought of reading books on screens does not make everybody comfortable, of course. The campaign group Voices for the Library even hosts a poem denouncing the Kindle on its website. But look who loves it: youngsters. A survey for World Book Night found that 58 per cent of teenagers have already read a book electronically. Freed from paper in this way, books have a much better chance of becoming cool again. When I was a teenager, it would have been laughable to suggest that the next generation’s favourite activity would be reading and writing—yet texting, Facebook and the rest have made it so. Likewise, I doubt my parents’ generation could have imagined that hip-hop, a ghetto upgrade on rhyming poetry, would become the world’s most popular style of music. Such transformations in an art form’s image are possible, but only when the medium is modern.

The switch from page to screen is certainly a radical one, however, so the over-my-dead-bodiers should not be mocked too caustically. Instead we should remind them, gently, that they have become obsessed with crockery instead of food. If they won’t listen, and start talking about Alexandria again, then we should rub our hands and say this: the Royal Library of Alexandria was almost certainly not destroyed by Bishop Theophilus, or any other fanatic, in 391, or any other year; it is most likely to have decayed slowly, thanks to a mixture of perishable book technology and lack of interest in its contents. Digital storage, we might add, means that any comparable loss is now more or less impossible for the rest of human history. When the children of 2011 look back, they will not see this as the year their local libraries were taken away. This will be the year they all got libraries of their own.


As the sales of e-books finally start to soar, what effect will this digital revolution have on publishers, readers and writers? Click here to read Tom Chatfield’s in-depth look at the future of reading

  1. March 24, 2011

    R_LEYTON

    I have been e-reading since 2004, which is almost pre-history in e-reading terms, when I bought a Palm handheld and discovered its e-reader. Instead of carrying one book in my bag I could carry a library in my pocket—I usually have about 800 books or so. One thing that puzzles me is why e-reading only seems to be taking off now with dedicated instruments to do it, such as the Kindle. Actually a BlackBerry or iPhone, probably any big screened smartphone in fact, is perfectly adequate to read on. The good and bad of e-reading: Because lots of stuff is free, you find yourself sampling authors you wouldn’t have bought and writers that have been forgotten (Does anyone read Hugh Walpole these days besides me? Or Arnold Bennet?)
    The main drawback of e-reading is that you don’t remember what you have read so clearly. Perhaps it’s because you don’t see the title of the book every time you open it. For the last three days I have been reading something by E.M. Forster. Engaging, but can’t remember what on earth it’s called.

  2. March 24, 2011

    KEN_CHAD

    If we take an *inclusive* view of what we mean by ‘libraries’ we see that business is actually booming. One of the biggest compnaies in the world (Google) has a mission statement that clearly defines it as a library company. However the ‘market share’ of *public* libraries is declining. A point made in response to the last government’s Modernistaion Review of Public Libraries
    http://www.kenchadconsulting.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/KenChadConsulting_Response_to_DCMS_-modernisation_review_of_public_libraries_Jan2010.pdf

  3. March 28, 2011

    Mark H

    While a library doesn’t have the same breadth as Amazon it’s a cheap way to get hold of books. Ebooks are currently selling for more than their hardback equivalents so they will more likely appeal to the better off rather than the young. Yes, you can get free out of copyright books but I can’t see century-old books appealing to the young. The publishing industry seems determined to put a damper on ebooks, probably because they have a more traditionalist outlook.

  4. March 28, 2011

    Ben Rosamond

    Give a Kindle to my 14 month old son and he will throw it on the floor. Sit him down with a few books and he will engage, explore and be enchanted. He is much more inclined to bring me a book to play with than any one of his many toys. He l…ives in a house surrounded by books. He is learning about the world and about the value of learning through his interaction with tangible physical objects. The critical period when children can become engaged with a world of learning is a period when they can’t interact with a screen. I am sure he will graduate to e-readers and treat them as the amazing portals that they can be, but he will graduate precisely because of his precious encounters from birth with these real things that you can hold and touch and turn the pages of. I guess he’s lucky because we have the resources to buy him his own private library. In the absence of those resources, I would want a well stocked public library with physical books in reach. That is why Pullman is right and you are wrong.

    (comment via facebook)

  5. March 28, 2011

    Matt

    I’m afraid Leo that not everyone is from a prosperous middle-class background so that they have the luxury to afford an e-book device.

    And anyway, you miss the point. Libraries aren’t just about books. They’re spaces that provide internet access, a place for parents to bring their children, schoolchildren to do their homework – particularly those living in cramped council accommodation, and the elderly to visit outside their home. A luxury e-book device is no substitute.

  6. March 28, 2011

    Lauren

    It must be added, however, that Voices for the Library is an organisation keen to promote the value and relevancy of public libraries in modern society – we posted the poem as a talking point, rather than an expression of our views!

  7. March 29, 2011

    Laurence Eyton

    Matt, that’s my point. You don’t NEED to be able to afford the luxury of a dedicated e-book device. Any 3G phone can read books and there’s a load of e-book reading free software. Actually I usually use iSilo which costs a tenner. That hasn’t stretched my non-prosperous middle class budget too much. As for being able to afford the phone, come on! You can get a free 3G phone with a £10 a month contract. With all this in mind, the Kindle—a stand-alone device that just reads books—and isn’t even back lit so you read it in bed in the dark–is actually a big step backwards. I just wish people would realize how easy e-reading is and that they almost certainly already have a gadget that can do it.

  8. March 29, 2011

    Leo Benedictus

    Hi all

    Sorry to be so slow in responding. To clarify (which here means “to apologise for not clarifying it before” – sorry), I am certainly not against libraries, or indifferent to their closure. Indeed, I use my local one regularly, albeit mostly as a way to entertain my 2-year-old son.

    My broader point is that ebooks will eventually become affordable to everyone – not just the middle class. (Or, as R_Leyton and Laurence Eyton might say, they are already.) All books too, whether via Google, piracy or online lending, will also become much cheaper for children, and perhaps even free.

    How long this process will take is hard to know, of course. (Although all the signs, such as this http://bit.ly/h2gtN7 today, show that it is happening faster than anyone, R_Leyton aside, expected.) But it does point to a future in which access to reading will be much wider than it is now, or has ever been before.

    On your point, Ben Rosamond, you may well be right that very young children need physical interaction to learn as they grow. But Pullman wasn’t talking about them, and nor am I. Once a child is old enough to sit and read words, and discover books in a meaningful way, they will get just as much from screens as they do from pages – more, in fact, because they can instantly check the meaning of any words they don’t understand (which will also enable writers to use more unusual, obscure, esoteric or even recondite vocabularies), and discuss and recommend their favourite stories with other children around the world. I think that this is both inevitable, and a cause for cheering!

    Leo

  9. April 1, 2011

    Joannah Yacoub

    Too many libraries are in odd places which reflect a style of life of 50 years ago. Why aren’t they located in shopping malls and supermarkets where children especially could be left for an hour to read and browse instead of being trailed screaming round with the trolley. Also, popping into the library would become part of the “routine” and wouldn’t demand a special trip for other users, even then parents of those children who could then help them choose. even if we go to e-books, there is still a place for the library but as an organisation, it has to start thinking outside of the box.

  10. April 3, 2011

    Scott P.

    You’ve omitted one of the best features of libraries: browsing. Growing up, about 95% of my reading was serendipitous, based on browsing the stacks, looking for something new. \

    Sure, if you have an e-reader, you can download Robinson Crusoe. But if you don’t already know it exists, you will never, in a million years, stumble over it.

  11. April 3, 2011

    Jeffrey

    I must disagree with your assessment of eReaders as a substitute for public libraries. Such a statement is akin to claiming that the Nintendo Wii system is a great substitute for parks and recreation centers In the U.S., libraries lend books for free, and provide periodicals and reference materials for research on site; and trained staff to assist in accessing and using library materials. Modern libraries also provide computers and internet access. The physical space of a library provides a quiet and organized venue for study.

    EReaders are still a costly investment for lower income families, and are subject to breakage and loss, particularly with young children. In addition, additional ongoing expense is required to obtain most books and periodicals. Also, can you imagine doing a serious research paper — even at the middle school level, using only and eReader?

    Electronic media devices provide limited advantages to a mostly middle to upper class group as an alternative to purchasing or subscribing to print media. But they are no substitute for an institution that provides a wide range of educational, artistic and social services to the community.

  12. April 3, 2011

    Steve

    An E-reader isn’t a library. It’s a bookstore. Trying to get kids to get interested in reading if they can’t read modern books (i.e. those in copyright) is like trying to get someone to like movies if all they can watch is Betty Boop cartoons.

  13. April 4, 2011

    Leo Benedictus

    Hi Scott, Jeffrey, Steve

    Sorry to lump you all together. These are absolutely fair points you make.

    My argument is not that ebooks should be seen as exact substitutes for libraries. As you say, they don’t provide physical book shelves to ramble round, or a librarian to talk to, or a place to go and read, or many of the other services that libraries offer. They are also, currently, more expensive than a library card.

    Instead, like any new technology, ebooks come with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. My argument is that, when you add everything up, they will, in a few years, make a better package than the strengths and weaknesses of books.

    The recommendations of librarians, for instance, will no doubt be replaced by the recommendations of other readers – as already happens successfully in music through last.fm or Apple’s Genius function. Personally, I find this a far better system for discovering good things. As for serendipity, this will still be possible, of course – perhaps more possible. I have read (well, started) several unpublished books through the Stanza app, for instance. I could never have found any of them in a library or bookshop, and all were free and instantly downloadable, which encourages very impulsive reading choices. (All were dreadful too, which is no surprise.)

    And the library as a space? Yes, it is nice to go somewhere to read. But it is also nice not having to. A traditional library guarantees children some books and a peaceful room, but only if it’s open and they can get there. An ebook guarantees them almost any book they want to read, at any time, wherever they are (with internet). Weigh those up, and it sounds like ebooks will make reading more accessible, to me. Safe public spaces should always be available to everyone, of course, but they need not be filled with bookshelves.

    Clearly children must be able to afford an e-reader in the first place – but that should be easily achievable in just a few years. The majority of children in the UK own a mobile phone right now, for instance, and our government already provides money (through Booktrust) for every child to have books delivered to them free. Perhaps in time, that money could subsidise e-readers for poorer ones instead. (Although there are rumours that Kindles may soon be distributed for free anyway.)

    Though complicated to organise, free digital borrowing does already exist, and should eventually make all new (or newish) books freely available to children too. In fact, there can be an unlimited range, and it will be cheaper for the state to deliver. This is without mentioning the money that children might save on bus fares and so on. Nor, of course, have I even touched on the exciting creative potential that ebooks offer authors, a new form which children will want to experience when it matures.

    As I say, paper books are emotive things. So were horses and vinyl LPs. But when something better comes along – and electronic books, eventually, will be better than paper ones – then I think we ought to make the most of it.

  14. April 9, 2011

    Gordon Ray

    How sad that such an intelligent and well educated person should have such a narrow and somewhat backward view of libraries and their function and role in society. Libraries have always been in the forefront of embracing and adopting new technology, even indeed pushing to have things developed further to meet the particular needs of their communities.

    I have spent a lifetime working in and around libraries because I believe them to be agents of social change, not in any radical and revolutionary way but because they offer people the opportunities and resources to explore and develop their interests and talents in an open and free environment.

    Kindle readers and e-books and other information technologies are not replacing and cannot replace libraries, they are merely further resources that libraries offer to their communities as part of the unique educational, social, recreational and cultural services that are their reason for being.

    When concerns are being regularly expressed about the lack of socialisation particularly amongst young people who are adapting so rapidly to social (or anti-social) media is it not foolhardy in the extreme to start to demolish the most successful experiment ever in educational, social and cultural exchange and sharing, by closing our community resource centres, our community meeting places that generate discussion and ideas, our public libraries.

  15. April 17, 2011

    Susan Larson

    Love the sentence, “This will be the year they all got libraries of their own.”

  16. May 15, 2011

    Michael MacKian

    No two-player books, Leo? Have you not heard of reading groups? People who jointly choose a book to read and then get together to discuss it? In their homes, in a coffee bar, or, while it is still possible, in a library?

  17. December 10, 2011

    Paul

    Great article. When will Prospect put its money where its mouth is, and start publishing it Kindle format?

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Author

Leo Benedictus

Leo Benedictus
Leo Benedictus is a Guardian features writer. His first novel “The Afterparty” is out now 


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