If we twisted your arm; if it was a matter of life and death; if you had to pick one or the other... would you choose a physical book or an ebook? That's exactly the choice we laid before the Write Yorkshire Scribble this week and, honestly? I think we struck a nerve...
There’s no arguing with the convenience of ebooks. Space, paper, money - all can be saved. Finish your book on the train with an hour still to go? No problem, flip to the next book and keep reading. Going on holiday and can’t get the eighteen hardbacks you plan to read next to the pool to fit within your luggage allowance? Not an issue - ebooks.
There’s the added fact that, pirated ebooks aside, selling digital books should earn authors more money, because you can’t nip on ebay and buy ebooks for 99p each, pre-loved and slightly dogeared. Every copy legally sold is a new copy. Supporting authors is important.
The world of digital books has opened up the publishing industry, making it possible for new voices to share their work with the word, when a traditional publishing deal would never have been an option. Digital books are a Good Thing.
This is the thing though… I really love rehoming a pre-loved book. I delight in a book which has obviously been read more than once. I go into spasms of delight when, browsing through a musty little second hand bookshop, I find a well cared-for edition of a favourite with a handwritten note in the front: “This book changed my life. I hope you love it too.”
Just as much, I love finding book-shaped objects wrapped in paper and string beneath the Christmas tree. That addictive zing of brand new book smell when you crack it open for the very first time; the feeling of the pages rushing by the pad of your thumb as you test its potential. I can’t keep the smile off my face when my eye alights on the pile of books next to my bed, or beside my desk, or the bulging bookcases stuffed in at the top of the stairs.
There is no doubting the benefits of ebooks over paper books. And yet, my heart is trapped inside real pages. I was born that way.
Physical. One hundred and ten per cent.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the ebook is a good thing. An incredible invention actually. A vast, unlimited library of literature available at a touch – and it can fit in your pocket or bag no problem. You’re going on holiday and you don’t have room in your luggage to take the three books that you want to read? Doesn’t matter. Take a hundred ebooks. Ground breaking.
Nevertheless, I don’t like them. I tried using ebooks when first I started my undergrad English Literature degree. It made reading a 150-page book feel like tackling Moby Dick. It was stressful and unenjoyable. I missed the paper and the weight of a physical book. I missed the pages on my thumb. I missed the smell. Even the clever highlighting feature of the e-reader I used felt wrong – pitiful compared to the satisfying tangibility and sound of a pencil scraping across the page.
Sure, ebooks might be the literary equivalent of the wheel but I’d rather live in the olden days. Give me a good second-hand paperback every time. Nothing else comes close.
I love physical books. Absolutely everything about them. The feel of them, the smell of them, the look of them. I'm a true book worm to the absolute core. I have hordes of books filling shelves and dream of having a library in my own house one day. That being said, I'm not totally opposed to an ebook. It's a bit of a tense subject amongst writers, but just hear me out, I have my reasons!
An ebook reader is a lot more portable than a book, which makes them perfect for taking on holidays when you have to consider baggage weight, or if you have to cart your belongings around a lot (backpacking, anyone?). Also, while it hurts my physical book loving heart, ebooks are often SO much cheaper, which often adds to the temptation. The majority of ebooks I own, I purchased during my degrees when the variation in price made a very big difference (you can buy a hell of a lot of pasta for £2/3).
Regardless of all of those things, there's just something so much better about actually holding the pages of a story in your hands. If money were no object, I'd only ever own beautiful first editions and I'd have the most gorgeous library to house them all in. I think when you've grown up reading under the covers by torchlight or sneaking away to steal a few seconds with a story, there's an infinite amount of nostalgia attached to the feeling of turning pages and grasping a book in your hands.
Basically, what I'm trying to say is, if you love ebooks? You'll receive no judgement from me. But personally, if I read an ebook I like? I always repurchase it as a physical book, so I think that tells you where I stand!
I’ve been the owner of a couple of bookshops over the last twenty years, so I’ve seen up close what books mean to people. I truly believe that the relationship between human beings and books is something primal, visceral and mystical. I’ve often - and I mean often - seen grown adults dip their heads into the bag of books they’ve just purchased and inhale the smell. The beatific smile on their faces when they come up for air speaks volumes, and it isn’t a result of ink and glue fumes. It’s the smile of anticipation; of nostalgia; of the promise of peace or adventure.
What better design can there be than that of the paperback book? It fits in a pocket, a handbag, a glove compartment. It moulds to the shape of a hand, it bends to the will of the reader. I’m an unashamed spine-cracker, corner-folder and note-maker. I don’t treat my books with reverence or put them on a pedestal. I have a relationship with them; I like to make them mine. I like to open them up and find sand in the creases from where I read one on holiday, or wavy edges from when I read one in the bath, or a smudge of chocolate from where I was having the most perfect afternoon with one on my own with a plate of biscuits and a cup of tea.
And a favourite book passed on can say so much more than the words on the pages. A carefully-chosen book given to a friend can say, ‘I know you’, ‘I love you’, ‘I’m worried about you’ or any number of messages you might want to convey. Give someone a well-chosen book, and you make them feel seen.
The enjoyment to be gained by a book-lover from a book isn’t just about the story. You drink in the artwork on the cover, you feel the heft in your hand, you read the dedication and you flick through the pages, just to hear them whisper their promises before you settle down to read.
I’m not knocking e-readers. They have their uses, and they can make reading accessible to people who might otherwise find it difficult. But there’s no love there, for me. I’ve never seen anyone sniff a Kindle.
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Cover image by Bru-nO via Pixabay