Thursday, 14 October 2010

Don't burn your books

This piece by me about ebook readers was in the Guardian earlier this week:

The relentless rise of the ebook is turning me into a resentful Luddite. I want to snatch that smugly tiny ereader from the woman reading in bed in the Sony advert, and give her a doorstop of a hardback that will make her arms ache. As for that trendy young couple reading on the beach in the Amazon commercial, I want to kick sand in their third generation Kindles until they stop working.

My dislike of the ebook is partly motivated by selfishness: as an author I would like my words to end up in some concrete, permanent receptacle, not an erasable computer file which the reader does not even properly own. But mostly it is motivated by irritation at the orthodoxy, typified by Amazon’s widely publicised announcement this summer that its American ebook sales had overtaken those of its hardbacks, that there is an irresistible momentum in favour of digital downloads and the days of the printed book are numbered.

In search of counterevidence, I turn to the experience of the most Luddite author of the last century: George Mackay Brown, the reclusive Orkney poet who regarded the industrial revolution as a terrible wrong turning, warned against our worship of the “synthetic goddess” of progress, and used his column in the local newspaper to moan about voguish inventions like transistor radios and telephones. “What brisk hard-headed common-sense dehydrated little manikins we are nowadays,” he admonished his fellow Orcadians in 1955, “strutting around with our cheque-books!” He reserved his most caustic comments for television, which finally arrived on Orkney in the mid-1950s and which he feared would deliver a death blow to the already endangered activities of reading and communal storytelling.

Time passed, and television found its place on Orkney. It became a mild addiction, which weakened but did not come close to destroying the art of pub storytelling or the pleasures of the printed word. In his later years, Mackay Brown reluctantly gave “half a genuflection” to the goddess of progress. He belatedly acquired a black and white TV, a telephone, a fridge and a digital watch, becoming fascinated by its “dance of dark numbers”. He even listed watching TV as one his recreations in Who’s Who, alongside reading, while he carried on writing in longhand about twelfth-century Orcadian sagas.

I believe that Mackay Brown represents, in extreme form, how many of us late adopters respond to new technology. As the historian of technology David Edgerton argues, our understanding of historical progress tends to be “innovation-centric” rather than “use-centred”. We obsess about exciting new inventions and underestimate how much they will have to struggle against the forces of habit and inertia in our daily lives. Old-fashioned but serviceable technologies often prove surprisingly resilient. There was much amusement last year when the expenses scandal revealed that the former MP Chris Mullin, the Mackay Brown of Westminster, still had a black and white television set – yet, according to the most recent count, more than 28,000 other households also still have monochrome licences. A few decades ago we thought radio a dying form, but it is now thriving in the age of new media. Listeners remain emotionally attached to their analogue radios and a recent report from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport recommended that the switch-off of the FM signal be delayed, possibly indefinitely.

The valedictories for what is now disdainfully called “dead tree publishing” may be similarly premature. The lessons from history are that technological progress is uneven, that consumers are often sceptical of techno-hype, and that new technologies do not supplant old ones in linear fashion. Look at the iPad’s ebook reader: your book purchase is stored on a real-looking wooden bookcase and you take it off the shelf and flip its virtual pages over with your fingers. Why, it’s exactly like … reading a book! So long as the ebook continues to pay it the compliment of mimicry, I suspect that the printed book need not fear for its life just yet.


  1. Susan Hill, in 'Howards End is on the Landing', is unrepentant in her dismissal of e-books:
    "No one will sign an electronic book, no one can annotate in the margin, no one can leave a love letter casually between the leaves. It is true that if I had no books but only a small, flat, grey hand-held electronic device, I would only needs a very small house and how tidy that would be with just the small, flat, grey ....."
    I kind of like this.
    thanks for sharing

  2. Thanks for the quote Martine - I hadn't seen that.

  3. I can see that in the age of only being able to take 1 pair of pants and a flannel on holiday without incurring extra expense, the e-book could prove invaluable to the traveller who wishes to catch up on her reading. Other than that, they are an abomination. Obviously I'm biased as I am a person who has to reduce their furniture in order to accommodate their books, but I'm with you and Susan Hill all the way.

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