Sunday, 17 October 2010

Why aren't I reading my print books any more?

Yesterday I blogged about my realisation of how few of my print books I've been reading lately. The last time I read a print novel that I bought was in January of this year; the time before that was in 2008. I've got about 1100 unread books on my shelf – at the current rate I'd be lucky to read 50 of those before dying!

So naturally that got me to wondering why I've stopped reading them.

Getting lots of books for review

This is clearly a big factor. I'm getting lots of brand new books to review all the time. Nowhere near as many as Book Chick City, but enough to keep me ticking over. The novelty of a brand new book makes it more attractive, while the deadline for a review gives the reading a bit of urgency. Reading new books for review obviously leaves less time for digging into my collection.

But looking at my list of books read over the last couple of years, when I have had a break from reviewing, I haven't gone to my print books. I've bought books for the Kindle (Best Served Cold, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, The Third Man, UR), and before that the Sony Reader (The Eyre Affair, Elder Scrolls: The Infernal City) or grabbed them for free from Feedbooks (The Pirates of Zan), Project Gutenberg (Stand by for Mars!) or the Baen Library (The Sea Hag).

So this can't be the only factor.

The chain effect

If I finish reading a book on the Kindle, chances are I just open up the next book I fancy on the Kindle and start reading that. My tolerance for hunting through my bookcases for particular books has withered away to nothing, for one thing! But also, when I finish a book I'm rarely sitting in my study surrounded by my print books. I'm usually lying in bed. Sometimes I'm on a bus or a train, or at the in-laws, or at a friend's house. If print books aren't handy during that crucial handover from one book to another, they're locked out until the next time I finish a book; my ebooks are always close to hand.

The way I buy books has changed

In the past, I would see a book I wanted and buy it right away, because it would probably be gone the next day. Even now, with Amazon, new books can go out of print very quickly. With ebooks it's a bit different. The publisher may eventually withdraw the book from sale, but they're not going to run out of copies, or dither over whether to reprint. I don't need to hoard books any more. So instead of buying everything I see, I download a Kindle preview, and once I've actually started reading the book – and if I like it – I buy it.

My bookshelves, on the other hand, are full of stuff that I thought I might want to read at some point. Graham Greene, Carl Hiaasen, James Ellroy, Marion Zimmer Bradley, C.J. Cherryh, Emile Zola, William Shatner. Great writers all, and I've read a novel or two by each of them. But I've anything up to a dozen more by each on my shelves, and I'm not desperate to read any of them right now.

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 22Then there are the anthologies, the Best New Horrors, the Best New SFs, Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, the Black Books of Horror, the Humdrumming Books of Horror, the Derleth, Haining and Greenberg anthologies – nothing wrong with any of them, but they've been sitting on my shelves for years waiting for me to feel like reading them, and as Shatner himself sang, it hasn't happened yet.

Now, I tend to only buy books on the day I'm going to read them. All those books on the shelves? I still might read them – someday – but probably not many of them.

Reading is nicer on the Kindle

Here's the nub of it. Paper books are not as much fun to read.

I'm not a booksniffer. Booksniffers are those people who, at the mention of ebooks, say things like "Ah, but you can't beat a real book", and accompany those words by opening out their hands as if they were the pages of a book, and for bonus points lift up the imaginary book to their noses for a sniff. They often close their eyes while doing this, which is an odd way to approach reading.

The strange thing is that, too often, they don't just express this idea as a personal preference, but hold it to be a universal truth, and are frequently shocked – and even angry – to hear people disagree. They honestly believe that people who buy ebooks do it under protest, or through aesthetic weakness, or in the dazzle of novel technology (pun intended), and so on. Some will even say that people using ebooks are deluding themselves.

But nope, for me, reading books on a Kindle is a much better experience than reading in print.

Of course, I accept that some people will always prefer print books. Maybe they really couldn't live without the smell of book mould. Many seem to expect an imminent apocalypse, given how worried they are about not being able to recharge a Kindle every three weeks. Most haven't even seen a Kindle, but know for certain that it's just like reading on a computer screen. They shouldn't worry: there will always be publishers and booksellers to cater to their fetish for paper.

The Penguin Concise English Dictionary (Penguin Reference Books)But it is a fetish. From the Penguin Concise English Dictionary, a couple of relevant definitions. Fetish: "an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion" – check! And fetishism? "The displacement of erotic interest and satisfaction to a fetish." Exactly: the object of a reader's interest should in theory be the text of a novel, not the paper it is printed on. Displacing the interest from the novel to the paper is fetishism.

I'm still reading a few paper books every month for review, and my goodness they're annoying. Not in any big ways, but in lots of little ways that add up to an inferior experience overall.

Here are a few of the ways paper books annoy me:
  • You have to transcribe any passages you want to quote – you can't just copy them across.
  • You have to choose between using a bookmark to keep your place, or folding back the book's corners.
  • The only way to search the text for a phrase is by re-reading the book.
  • You can't read them in the rain.
  • Lots of them are heavy.
  • And bulky.
  • Reading them in bed on your side is a nightmare.
  • The text often disappears into the spine.
  • Reading the book damages it.
  • You can't change the size of the font when your eyes get tired, or when you get older and short sighted. If you need to read a print book in large print you have to hope someone publishes a large print edition.
  • You need to buy – and build! – bookcases to store them on. They take up most of your house, if you let them. (And boy have I let them!)
  • All those books are a huge fire risk.
  • And once you've got them on those shelves, the only way to put them in order is to do it manually, one book at a time.
  • And if you sort them by author, but then say want to see them sorted by publisher, date bought, date read, title or genre, it takes more than just a single click. They need to be re-sorted one by one, a process that could take days if you have as many printed books as I do. In practice, you will probably never sort your books in this way.
  • When you buy a bunch of new books? You have to shuffle all the books on all the shelves along to make room. And probably buy a new bookcase. And build it. Or throw some books away.
  • They are incredibly wasteful. Do you know how many books Oxfam pulps every year? How many are destroyed by bookshops who rip off the front covers to claim returns?
  • No built-in dictionary. You need an extra book for that.
  • No built-in encyclopedia either. Again, you need an extra book for that.
  • No built-in highlighter. You can highlight with a pen, but it permanently defaces the book.
  • If you do make notes in your print book, or highlights, you can't just export them to your computer. You have to type them all up.
  • If you want to buy a new book, you have to either wait a few days for it to be delivered, or go and collect it from a shop.
  • People look at you funny if you stand in a shop and read the first thirty pages of a book before buying it.
  • If you leave the house with a new book and it turns out to be a lemon, you're stuck with it. You can't just switch to one of your other books.
  • Paper books don't read themselves to you while you're cooking!
  • If you go on holiday or travel for more than a day there's a limit on how many paper books you can take with you, and on how many you can bring back with you (I brought a suitcase full of books back from my honeymoon in Paris, and wished I could have carried twice as many.)
  • If you buy a new paper book, only one person in the family can read it at once. You can snuggle up with the spouse and read together, but that only works as long as you're on the same page.
  • When you've read a book, you can either keep it forever, in which case it'll take up space in your house until the day you die, or you can sell it or give it away to charity, in which case it will be gone.
  • You can't carry all your books with you wherever you go. If a paper book makes an allusion to another book you've read, you can't check it till you get home. When reading Tony Blair's A Journey (perhaps unsurprisingly the only Kindle purchase so far that I didn't manage to finish!) there was a reference to the rewriting of clause 4. Did it agree with Mandelson's account in The Third Man? I wasn't sure, so, despite being in a pub, I switched to that book, searched for clause 4, and re-read Mandelson's version.
    A militant booksniffer will have a counter-argument for all of these. They don't read in bed, so it doesn't matter if books are hard to read lying on your side. Their shelves are all in perfect order. Their eyes never get tired. Or they have a magnifying glass. They don't need bookmarks, because they remember what page they were on. Wanting to copy quotes instead of transcribing is lazy.

    A lot of booksniffer arguments come down to laziness. Yes, they seem to say, paper books are a bit inconvenient, but if you weren't so lazy, you'd put up with it. The implicit argument is that print books are worth making the effort, that we're not working hard enough to keep them alive. But why should we? I care about novels being published, but I couldn't care less whether they're printed on paper or not. I spend hours every day reading, and so I want to make that time as pleasant as possible. For me, reading print books is like putting my TV on its side: I could still watch all the programs, if I made a bit of an effort and tipped my head, but why put myself to that trouble?

    Kindle Wireless Reading Device, Wi-Fi, 6" Display, Graphite - Latest GenerationFor some readers, each and every one of those counter-arguments will hold true, and the Kindle really would be no benefit at all to them. For example, Quentin S. Crisp has pulled a few examples out from the above list here with the intention of showing that none of them are particularly significant, but that's kind of the point. They're all very small things, but small things add up. The result, for me, has been that when I've come to choose what book to read next, the paper books have been at a disadvantage. The reading experience on the Kindle is a little bit better in every way, which in sum makes it quite a bit better overall.

    It's like Hobnobs: I love the originals, but I very rarely buy them any more, because Chocolate Hobnobs are just that little bit tastier!


    So I think those are the reasons I'm not reading my collection of print books any more. No big revelation, no great insight: they're just getting squeezed out by books for review, by books on the Kindle, by their own general awkwardness and inaccessibility. When I read a paper book now I find myself having to develop workarounds to do the things a Kindle would let me do without any trouble!

    That's not to say I don't still love the paper books I own, or that if I lost my Kindle or Sony Reader I wouldn't go back to them, but they're second best now. Not by much – maybe just by a fraction – but by just enough that I never seem to pick them up any more, and I think the rate at which they are being shipped off to charity shops is only going to increase.


    1. This article's provoked a rebuttal by Quentin S. Crisp, no less! Check it out here:

      The only problem with Quentin's argument is that I'm analysing here something that has *already* happened. Of my thousand unread paper books, I only read one in 2009-2010. If I'm wrong about the reasons for that, what were the real reasons..?

    2. I too have many more books on my shelves than I'll probably ever read, though I'm making a concerted effort to get through them (kiboshing myself at every step by buying more books). But I like paperbacks (and I am, on occasion, a booksniffer), I like the feel and the weight and the tactile nature. A good friend of mine is very gadget-y, he's had a Palm for years and often downloaded my books to read on it so that he could critique me as he was waiting to pick up his daughters from various social events.

      At the moment, it's choice - which would you rather do? I'll go with the books for the moment but I'm sure that the day will come when I go electronic.

      One other thing though - I like my little library, those four bookshelves filled with titles and promise. My wife, however, would probably prefer that they were all held on one device - at least she'd get the room back then!

    3. I think a lot of it comes down to how and when you read. I've always done most of my reading at night, in bed, on my side – quite an awkward position to read a paper book in. Or when I'm out and about, on buses, trains, etc, where I've constantly had to leave books behind because they were too heavy to lug around with me.

      For example, my wife's reading Under the Dome on her new Kindle - the hardback had gone unread because it was just too heavy for her to carry to and from work.

      It's weird for me to be accused of being contemptuous of printed books. I wouldn't have collected three or four thousand of the things if I didn't love them. I've just found something that - for me - makes reading much more pleasant.

      Having said that, I strongly disagree with people who argue a novel has no value unless it's been printed out. It's not people who sniff their books that bug me; it's people who think a book that doesn't smell is automatically inferior!

      For me, the novel itself has the same artistic value whether you read the pdf, or send the pdf to the printers to be printed out. If the printed book is a work of art in itself, smashing, but that won't affect the quality of the prose.

    4. Oh I didn't think you were contemptuous, just more ready to embrace the technology than I was. As for your wife, I had the same thing - I read in bed and I also read during my lunch break, but found that Under The Dome wouldn't fit in my briefcase!

      At the end of the day, your last 2 paragraphs are spot on - a novel is a collection of words, that's the meat of it, whether it's a book or a PDF is effectively meaningless.

      Look at Kerouac - he wrote on a roll of newsprint. How difficult would that have been to lug to and from work in a briefcase?

    5. "I think the rate at which they are being shipped off to charity shops is only going to increase"

      "charity shops" plural? I'm hurt!