Ruth Burke-Kennedy


...on judging a book by its cover

A FRIEND SAID recently that she needs an ebook reading device. “Needs” one. I looked at her, sitting opposite me. She is in her mid-30s and fully-sighted. Like most women, she has an oversized handbag, perfect for carrying a book or three. Why in the name of god does she need an ebook reader? What would she put on her shelves?

My friend “needs” one because she is a gadget junkie. She likes technology and sees it as essential, even when it clearly is not. I often wonder if she ever had one of those lights that came on when she clapped.

Her phone is a perfect example of her insatiable habit. On it she has an application for showing people what they would look like if they were obese. She has others for finding things such as the nearest pub or petrol station or fancy dress outlet. She can use her phone to track how much she is drinking and work out her menstrual cycle. She even has an application that allows her to pay the bill in a restaurant without having to hand over her bank card. It’s amazing that modern communications technology removes the necessity for us to talk to one another at all.

My phone has two basic functions – it makes and receives calls. Occasionally, if it can be bothered, it reluctantly sends or receives a text or two. It’s old and bad-natured. I can’t scroll down so I have to read text messages from bottom to top. Often it opts belligerently for the speaker phone function and effectively becomes nothing more than a walkie-talkie. The button with 3DEF on it regularly freezes. The phone turns itself off when it gets cold (it’s from Finland but a poor Irish summer is more than it is prepared to tolerate). It doesn’t take photos, play music, give directions or make chips. It’s a jobsworth. I use it for the simpler things in life, like trying to find my husband when we get separated in the supermarket. (He recently found an entire aisle devoted to “adult cereal”. Imagine his disappointment on discovering discover this meant muesli.)

In my mind, an ebook reader, such as the Kindle, is technological contrivance at its worst: it’s fixing something that isn’t broken. In fact, it’s just simply breaking something.

The delight of reading is a multi-sensory pleasure and an intimate experience. It is not simply about reading words off a page. You develop a physical relationship with a book. You hold it, bend it, smell it, write on it, fall asleep with it on your face. You dog-ear the pages, cover it in coffee rings. When you think back on a phrase or line you want to refer to, you have a picture of where it was: the middle of a left-hand page.

Sometimes you slip elements of your own life between the pages to remember your place – train tickets, bookmarks, postcards or letters. Together with the book, these create your own story, one which you rediscover when you take the book down from the shelf years later. Other times you leaf endlessly through the pages trying to remember where you were, or read the same sentence over and over before you finally conk out for the night, book in hand.

You carry your book everywhere so you can dive in for a sneak read when even the shortest of reading windows presents itself. You panic endlessly when you leave it behind. It becomes an extension of you, of where you are at a moment in time.

Some of this is still applicable to the electronic reading device. Not all of it though. Sure, you’ll panic if you leave your ebook behind in a cafe, but more because you’ve just offered up more than 100 quid’s worth of kit to the next opportune thief, and less because you feel you accidentally closed a door to the other world you had been occupying in your mind.

If recent advertising is to be believed, the great things about ebooks are: 1) the dog can lick them and not get electrocuted; 2) you can “read” them in the bath and not get electrocuted; 3) they fit into baskets on the front of bicycles. If you don’t have a dog, a bath or a bicycle, the advantages appear to leave marketing departments struggling.

To give them their due, the font size on an ebook is adjustable so if you have a visual impairment you can increase it to suit you. They support MP3 files and come with a headphone port so, if you wish, you can use them to listen to audio books.

However, they’re endlessly fiddly and have a lot of tiny buttons. The screens too are small, meaning you have more page turns with most ebooks than with a real book. These flaws seem to negate the benefits.

The other standard argument for the ebook is that if you’re one of those people that devour books on holidays you can download a bunch and not worry about paying for extra weight in your luggage. But a basic model costs more than €100.

I, for one, do not need an electronic reading device. My gnarled, battered and much-loved books litter my house, spines jutting out boldly from the walls. Their covers often mean as much as the contents – just because of the memories they stir or the ideas they awaken.

I don’t want my experience of reading to be held captive in a screen. I want my books to be free. So, unless you are a librarian who doesn’t want to lose your job, I advise you to take off those insane plastic protective covers, break the spines, let the pages curl, and allow the words take flight from the page.

Ruth Burke- Kennedy is a writer working with the Northern Ballet (who needs a new phone)

Róisín Ingle is on leave