What would an e-book festival look like? There were three Kindles held by the three people in my immediate vicinity at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last Wednesday night. Granted we were waiting for “The rise of e-books” discussion event to begin, but the sight of so many fellow audience members polishing off the last few pages of Sebastian Barry onscreen felt new, and jarring.
The information board behind the panel guests—the same board displayed at every event—promised that there would be a book signing afterwards. In fact, there wasn’t one this time, and it’s probably just as well: e-books don’t lend themselves to signings.
But book festival audiences are keen literary downloaders. A show of hands revealed well over half of those attending this event owned e-book readers, and at least a dozen said they preferred reading a book on a Kindle to reading it on paper. The discussion was well timed, then. As the festival claims in its title to be a celebration of books, and not simply of literature, to ignore such a visible evolution (or overthrowing) of the book would seem outdated, even willful.
The debates about old books versus e-books are the Japanese knotweed of literary discussion in 2011—they get into everything. On one side, book defenders cry that books are treasured artefacts, while an e-book reader is just a cold, hard tool for accessing content. Ah, the e-book lovers return, but the book itself was only ever really a way of accessing content, and the content is the important bit. The leading argument against e-books smacks of sentimentality. But is that so bad? In the end, most of us, probably, are undecided about which form of reading we prefer but so familiar with the dialogue that we’re sick of it.