18 August 2011

The "real" thing - the flip side

It's high time, having talked often enough about my lack of æsthetic pleasure when reading from digital devices, that I redress the balance; and an inner city café conversation has given me the push to do so.

When Matt Revell commented on my "The real thing" post, regarding his change of feelings on this subject he emphasised “the convenience that the Kindle offers”, which I couldn't deny; I have never disputed the convenience of electronic readers, only their æsthetics. However, he also opened with one nuclear deterrent of a point which trumps everything: “I'm reading a lot more” ... and with that I cannot argue. It's the same argument which I've now encountered in a dramatic way.

P is the "alpha" in a group of young women whom I encounter within an education outreach programme: all of them intelligent, all of them educationally disconnected, all of them exploring, suspiciously, ways to escape the trap into which those two facts have led them. I mention her alpha status because it is crucial to my relationship with them. They are all there because P is there; if P lost interest and left, none of them would stay long without her.

P could not be more different from Matt. Whereas he was already a reader with an profound interest in literature, for whom the electronic reader has enabled continuance in a busy life, she is someone whom literacy let down at an early age: she found reading slow and difficult, something to be worked at if the payoff was worthwhile, but not in itself a source of any enjoyment. It's P's story which has, nevertheless, echoed Matt's.

P says that she had never in her life read a book beyond the first chapter or so, never mind all the way through. She would sometimes start one, always when there was nothing else to do, but “couln't be arsed with carrying it around”. The next time she was at a loose end, but only if she happened to be wherever she had left the book, she would pick it up again ... but couldn't remember where she'd gotten to, or what had happened, when she put it down days or even weeks before. After a while she would “get fucked off with it and give up”. Later she would try another, repeat the process, reinforce the negative feelings, give up again.

Christmas 2009, she was given an e-reader. She thought it “a rubbish present” and it sat on a shelf for months, plugged in but unused and ignored.

Then came the day when she was bored, it was raining, none of her friends answered the phone, and in desperation she picked up the reader. It was preloaded with a dozen books; the giver had obviously thought carefully about them, since they included Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga vampire quartet and P had enjoyed the first two films adapted from the first two novels in that sequence.

She started reading Twilight, the first novel but, as usual, put it aside as soon as another diversion offered itself. She forgot it again for a couple of weeks but, when she returned, the device remembered where she had stopped. She moved back one page to recover the thread and then took up where she had left off. After a couple of such returns, she stopped reading to go shopping. Encouraged by the new continuity and by the small size and weight of the reader, instead of putting it down she unplugged it from the wall for the first time and dropped it into her bag. On the bus, she pulled it out again and continued reading until she reached the shops. When she finished Twilight she went on to Eclipse.

To cut a long story short by leaping about a year to the present (you can, I'm sure, construct the intervening steps for yourself), P is now reading “about a book a week or ten days”. She has also investigated some surprising material, including a complete works of Shakespeare which was on her reader alongside Meyer: “Most of Shakespeare is crap”, she assures me, “don't waste your time on it. But a couple of his plays are cool, like The tempest is well wicked f'rinstance, and some of the sonnets are absolutely fucking amazing”.

She has moved beyond fiction, too. She has a number of reference guides related to things that interest her and that, it seems, was what brought her (and thus her group, too) to tentative reengagement with education through the outreach programme.

Lacking my moral squeamishness about copyright, P has recruited an unrequited technophile admirer to supply her new habit with free hacked copies of most titles she wants. But she does buy “about one new book ever six weeks or so, 'cos I can't be arsed with waiting for the crack”, so the writing and publishing industries are still benefitting from her to an extent. I'm turning over in my mind the philosophical relationships between this and public libraries, but haven't formulated any opinions as yet. Her local public library, in fact, plans an ebook loan service shortly, and perhaps that will be a hook to draw her deeper into what the system has to offer her intellect.

  • Stephenie Meyer, Twilight. 2005, New York: Little, Brown, 9780316160179 or 2006, London: Atom. 1904233805 (pbk.). Digital edition 2009, London: Hachette Digital. 1904233651
  • Stephenie Meyer, Eclipse. 2007, London: Atom. 9781904233893 (hbk.) and 9781904233909 (pbk.), or more recently 2010, London: Atom. 9781905654635 (pbk.). Digital edition 2009, London: Hachette Digital. 1907410505


Geoff said...

Good luck to P.
A heart warming story.
I wouldn't be surprised if one day she gets to like the "feel", the "smell" and look of a book.

Matthew Revell said...

There are many things I could and probably should say in response here but, Geoff, I want to take up that idea that the physical book should somehow be as attractive to all readers as it appears to be for you.

For me, it once was. I felt a physical revulsion at causing a crease or breaking a spine.

Now, the physical artefact is rarely more interesting to me than the cardboard container my coffee comes in when I catch an early morning train. It does a job and, really, I'd prefer some other form that didn't burn my fingers so easily ... or require an easily lost bookmark to track my place.

I feel the same way about so many things these days. I used to cling to the comfort and familiarity of certain physical objects, books included. Then a couple of things happened, including a flood that destroyed many precious photos and most of my CD collection and also a number of house moves in a relatively short space of time.

I also spend most of my work life sat behind a computer screen working from home with colleagues the world over, through IRC and email. So, perhaps a certain willingness to accept content shorn of physical presence is to be expected.

Physical objects can let you down; be gone forever because you're rushed while packing or destroyed thanks to inadequate storm drainage.

I don't deny that many, including the younger me, enjoy and value the physical book. I doubt, though, that such an enjoyment is the natural end-point for everyone.

Felix said...

Geoff, Matt: the key word in Matt's response is, I think, "should".

Like Geoff, I take intense pleasure in the physical artefact of a paper book. I certainly hope that they will not, within my lifetime, disappear as an option. But that is a feeling of Geoff's and mine, no more universal than (for example) a love of Beethoven or the Sugababes.

There is no should in this mattter – except that we should all be able to follow whatever route leads us to discovery (or to whatever else we seek).

I've been trying to imagine what previous change in technology would be equivalent to the difference between "P" on the one hand and Geoff or myself on the other. I suppose the nearest I can get is to imagine an old codger like myself telling me, when was nineteen, that my love of books was good but that one day I would graduate to appreciation of scrolls.

I shall try to work up a blog post on this, sometime...

Felix said...

FG> ...what previous change in technology
FG> ... ... ... scrolls.

Actually, it belatedly occurs to me that a better analogy is more recent: the switch from hardback books to paperback.

People regularly express surprise that I prefer to buy paperback books instead of hardbacks. But my reasons are, when I think about it, similar to those of Matt and "P" for preferring electronic over paper: a paperback is much easier, lighter and and less cumbersome to cart around with me than a hardback.