In praise of books
After months of reluctance and procrastination, I recently decided to cave in to my more progressive reasoning, and buy an ebook reader. Then I decided to upgrade that as far as a tablet, to take better advantage of the digital editions of various magazines, thereby saving me money on the somewhat more costly print-and-deliver subscriptions that most of them offer.
This would then give me enough of an excuse to splash the cash on a Google Nexus or some class of an iPad. See? By spending money I am actually saving money. (There are very good reasons why I don’t work in the business section of this newspaper.)
And so the online trawl could begin. Hours of work could be lost, poring over the most minute differences in screen resolution, dimensions and vital statistics. Time spent waiting in airports could finally be put to good use, wandering the glossy, harsh-lit aisles of electronic outlets, casting a cold eye on shiny bits of hardware, while attempting to project the aura of a Mullingar cattle dealer deciding on his next prize heifer. Assistants would approach and we could make knowing references to accelerometers, nod sagely over the fine print of warranties, and appraise the relative merits of processor cores. This was going to be brilliant.
(And this was only the first step – once I had made the investment, this time would be put to even better use with my new, lithe, efficient-o-maker in my hand luggage, just ready to maximise my down time/economise my minutes/insert meaningless business phrase here.)
My life, in short, would be transformed, and all those hundreds of books I recently moved house with would no longer act like the millstone around my neck, and the papery forts around my furniture, that have thus far blighted my life.
And then a few things happened.
I bought David Byrne’s latest book, How Music Works. It’s fantastic, so far, and I don’t expect it to falter as the set list continues. More pertinently to the above, it’s a beautiful thing, from its squishy, white cover to its unusual treatment of pictures and colourful graphs. No doubt the latter will reproduce just as nicely in digital form, but I have yet to see a tablet with a squishy screen. (If you’re reading this Jonathan Ive, I want royalties for that last bit).
And then I read this piece by Arminta Wallace, extolling the virtues of Penguin’s Modern Classics series, and the joys of reading a physical book. “There’s little romance in a free ebook,” she writes. “I’ve availed of them and they are the digital equivalent of dusty and unloved. The originals, on the other hand, are dusty, tatty – and much loved. I have a whole shelf of them.”
The books on my own shelves began to stare at me balefully, as if they knew what treachery I was up to, scurrying about the airport while attempting to outsource their bulk. How would I ever in clean conscience be able to go into my favourite second-hand bookshops again, such as Prim’s in Youghal, when the shop assistants would know, just by looking at me, that I’d changed sides?
There would be no more hours lost sifting shelves for hardback treasures. There would be no more scrawls on folios complementing last-minute birthday gifts – typically bought en route to the celebratory drinks – that turned a dying-seconds save into a thoughtful gift. There would be no more casual nosiness in a café, wondering what the good looking person across the room was reading.
What would the people at the Dublin Book Festival, on all this week, say? The publishers admit, in this article about publishing a first novel, that ebooks are a great addition – before almost universally insisting that you can’t beat the genuine article.
Perhaps I’ll paperback over the cracks just a little bit longer.