Every now and then someone pops up on television having a moan about e-readers. Recently it was John Craven, stalwart of Countryfile and late of NewsRound.
I like Craven, but his argument against electronic books and e-readers, as expressed on the BBC’s Room 101, was flimsy: people must be mad to read from a horrid little screen when they could enjoy a lovely printed book. I’m summarising, but that was about it.
These spurious “e-reader versus books” comments are heard surprisingly often. The only proper response is to say (through gritted teeth) that the two are not mutually exclusive. When someone buys an e-reader the seller does not make them swear off printed books in future. And purchasers are rarely motivated by long-suppressed loathing of paper and printers’ ink.
Consider the logic of Craven’s way of thinking. When I buy a carton of apple juice am I turning my back on apples? No. I am consuming exactly the same product in a different form. Today I am drinking juice; tomorrow I might eat an apple.
I enjoy reading an electronic book every bit as much as one in print form. In fact, the sensory experience is surprisingly similar: page, eyes, brain, imagination. Admittedly there is no sensation of fingers touching paper, but withdrawal symptoms are assuaged easily enough.
Printed books are wonderful, and will never be supplanted, but their electronic cousins do have a lot going for them. For a start, e-readers are kinder to the eyes of people who, like me, long ago entered middle age, because it is easy to adjust the font size. The only options with a printed book are to use a magnifying glass (making the reader feel about a hundred years old) or to move your face closer to the page.
E-readers liberate you from the relentless accumulation of printed volumes in your home, eating up more and more shelf space with every purchase. They also free you from the reproach of a half-read volume on the bedside table, its bookmark forever at page 251. Your electronic failures are hidden from view.
With an e-reader you can carry hundreds of volumes on a single device that weighs the same as a paperback and takes up the same space. It doesn’t matter whether you keep them till the day you die, because they will never need dusting and will never spill on to the floor in your spare room.
E-books are virtual books, which seems to legitimize your treating them like commodities rather than “guests” in your home, whom you feel obliged to treat with special consideration (“I can’t throw them out, I’ve had them for years”).
But the clincher for me is the way my e-reader has broadened my literary horizons. How many times over the years have I heard a book mentioned and thought “I’d like to read that”, only to forget about it almost at once? Now I grab my e-reader and immediately download the book, or a free sample, from the internet. As a result I have read dozens of books I might otherwise never have got round to, from Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Voltaire’s Candide. And that, Mr Craven, should be enough to persuade anyone to give e-readers the benefit of the doubt.