Last week I bought an e-reader. I also bought a lot of books. Paperback books. The world didn't end.
Yes, yes, how very 2010, but I've spent the last couple of years thinking my iphone was a good enough e-reader. And it is splendid. But, those Nook things are only £29 – how bad can they be?
Actually amazing. They look so much like paper I made three attempts at peeling off the welcome screen. They make consuming books so wonderfully easy – Lady Molly Of Scotland Yard has sat on my iphone for over a year, but she solved her last crime in a little over an hour.
There is a problem – I have never been a monogamous reader. I always feel guilty when there are more than four books by the bed. But my nook has made cheating sinfully easy. After a day I caught myself actively punishing books. If something happens in them that I don't care for then zip! Off to something else. If those nuns are in trouble, then farewell! Too many pages in Italics? Then I'll call you back, Dan Brown.
I'm sure there's a phrase for this phenomenon, but I can see a time when my e-reader is little more than a collection of banished suitors. Thomas Hardy is going to be a bugger to finish on an e-reader. I wonder if I'm alone in this? I wonder if future editors will tell writers “You're going to lose people here...” as readers become channel surfers, bailing on books when the hero does something annoying, or a beloved character dies?
As well as Dan Brown (yeah, I was back within 5 minutes), I've also been reading Jamaica Inn. In paperback. It's a brilliant example of a book that doesn't stand a chance on my e-reader. It's a skilful exercise of the “Don't go into the spooky house, Doris!” variety. When I'm not cheering on the heroine, I'm yelling at her – don't hide in the parlour! Don't go off with him! Don't sell that pony! I wouldn't have finished this book on an e-reader. I'd also have had to buy a new one. My lovely old Penguin has been thrown angrily into a corner twice.
While they're busy changing the way new books will be written, they're a fantastic way of unlocking old ones. I love my classic crime, and there's a whole host of obscure detectives suddenly within my grasp (seriously, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard). But still... searching Project Gutenberg is never going to replace the joy of nosing around a second hand bookshop. Perhaps we'll just get better at deciding what deserves space on our shelve. The physical books we buy will be the ones that proclaim loudly “This is who I am”.
One thing I would change about e-readers would be an option to change the cover on them so that it tells people exactly what you're reading. Perhaps in the style of an old Penguin. Why yes, I am reading that. No, wait, I've changed my mind, I'm reading this. No, oops, now it's 50 Shades.
But it is not my ideal world. I can tell this because cats do not have the vote, steam trains don't run over the grave of Dr Beeching, and it is not compulsory to watch Daleks 2150 AD once a year. So perhaps that's a good thing. And, at the end of the day, e-readers are about people making their own decisions.
I was doing some research into Penguins recently, and was told that, until Allen Lane invented them, ordinary people by and large didn't bother with books. Bookshops were scary places and books were serious things. Then along comes Penguin and books are suddenly all the rage and tremendous fun. So maybe, e-readers are today's Penguins. Just not orange.