Friday, 25 February 2011

Socrates and the Kindle

Like all writers, I’m frequently asked, these days, for my opinion on e-readers, Google books and the whole digital revolution as it relates to fiction. I think people are rather surprised at my reaction; because, on the whole, I’m pretty much in favour of books appearing electronically.

‘Ah’ they say ‘but you can’t reproduce the smell of a book, the feel of a book in your hands.’ And no, of course, you can’t. But, for me at least, that’s not what a book is about. I frequenly shock bookish types when I say that, on the whole, I dislike second hand bookshops – precisely because of the smell and the feel. I like new books, books coming off the presses now, books full of possibilities for a new cohort of readers. And I think that the e-reading devices, whether it’s the iPad, the Kindle, the Sony e-reader (or any of the other devices that are, as the litigation-conscious BBC gets its presenters to say, available) are going to provide a new cohort of readers. Because some people like the concept and the feel (possibly even of the smell) of an expensive piece of electronic gizzmology in their hands.

The Other Half and I now own a Kindle. We hadn’t actually meant to – for reasons of cost alone – but had, in cahoots with the OH’s sister – bought one for my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday. (She would have been delighted. Though she missed her 80th by 9 days, she owned and used a computer, a mobile phone and an iPod. As she lived in France, getting English language books took a while, even on Amazon, so the Kindle was designed to get her reading matter to her more quickly.) It’s currently on loan to a colleague of the OH’s who’s wondering whether to buy one, but we’ve already got a few books that we’re waiting to download. It may save our house from becoming book-bound as we have more bookshelves than a house of its size can really cope with, plus cupboards whose shelves are stacked 3-deep with books we just can’t bear to part with.

I’m not – yet – a huge fan of the Kindle. (We use one at work for reluctant readers who like technology.) I don’t like the grape-pip-sized letters on the keyboard and I don’t find the device enormously intuitive. I’d be better off with an iPad. (Yes. My name’s Alis and I’m a mac geek.) But the iPad is far more expensive and doesn’t use electronic paper like the e-readers so I couldn’t really see myself reading whole books on it. Short stories, maybe, but not Wolf Hall.

But, my tastes aside, it’s worth taking a historical perspective on all of this ‘real book vs. ebook’ controversy. For instance, did you know that Socrates was dead against the introduction of that new fad, literacy? In his mind, teaching a system of recording and accessing information to the young would rot their brains, make their memories atrophy like vestigial limbs and introduce all kinds of perverse and undesirable things to their developing minds. He declared that they would read things and think themselves knowledgeable instead of debating them and truly becoming so. (He may have been right on that one…)

I’m guessing that most readers would agree - pretty much by virtue of being readers - that his reaction was a tad over-heated.

The way I see it, if Socrates, one of the great minds of all time, couldn’t see the manifold advantages to humanity of being able to write things down rather than have to commit everything to memory and of being able to access the thoughts of other minds without having to make face-to-face contact with their owners, then it’s likely that the doom-mongers of our own generation aren’t seeing all the possibilities of the digital revolution.

But it’s changing the way our brains work the doom-mongers say. Well? So did reading (if you don’t believe me, read this book) and I don’t hear the nay-sayers jumping up and down and protesting that we were better off learning things by heart.

It looks to me as if we’re at the beginning of a paradigm shift in terms of the way we read and interact with books. Since books are clearly still going to be there – albeit in a range of different formats – isn’t that good for writers? We just need to hold our nerve and keep up with what we need to do to ride this wave.