Wherein I Try and Justify My Hoarding

When I was a kid, we had a small TV and a big bookcase. They were both walnut veneer over MDF. By the time I’d grown to about the height of the TV, the bookcase was still three times bigger than I was. It had weight and heft. It imposed itself on the room. You were forced to engage with it. If you did it with open eyes and a receptive mind, you got a lot back. The TV is long gone, but the bookcase is still there.

Now I am twenty five and can fit a library on my phone.

I’ve been aware of Project Gutenberg for at least as long as I’ve known of Wikipedia, because when I used to look up books I’d heard of, there’d often be a link to a public domain text. My mum read a lot but didn’t have many of the classics. I read Lord of the Flies at school and wanted more. I started following hyperlinks and ended up at the library of Alexandria.

I didn’t end up reading a lot of those classics, though. At least not that way.

Classics can be dense enough without trying to read them on a bright plasma screen. That and the fact that it can end up presenting so much text to you at once that you end up overwhelmed. Sure, you can adjust zoom/font settings, but it’s hard to get over that initial shock of seeing an entire chapter on your screen. That, and a scroll wheel is no replacement for turning pages. There’s a reason dedicated e-book readers (and apps) maintain discrete pages.

I got a Kindle as soon as there was a model I could afford. I read about ten percent of Les Misérables and put the Kindle in a drawer for about two years. It feels odd to talk about literature in terms of percentages, but on a fixed size screen the number of pages changes as the font size does, whereas you have always read a certain percentage of the words. I can’t remember if I had a specific reason for putting my Kindle in storage, but it probably had something to do with me studying for a degree at the time, and needing the notes and other luxuries that are present in more modern editions of the classics.

So my Kindle made me a better scholar, but not in the way I thought it might.

In addition, I do just like physical books. I like turning pages. I like how they look and how they smell. And they do furnish a room (unless you’re like me and they spill out over the furnishings and on to the floor).

They’re also objects in a way a digital book isn’t, in that they suffer from impermanence. Of course, permanence is a lovely upside to the new library of Alexandria, but there is no history there bar the odd change of spelling and the occasional transcriber’s note. I remember where I was when I bought my (first) copy of Ulysses, I remember the context of my life at the time. I remember that it was slightly shop soiled and I got a discount. I was paying by gift card and this meant I had about a quid left on it, and that I bought a bottle of coke with that quid to use the card up. I remember that I got the gift card from my form at school, as a leaving present. I can’t remember where I was when I downloaded that copy of Les Misérablesexcept that it must have been from Project Gutenberg.

I have books that contain paw prints, left there by long dead pets.

A friend of mine once tried to convince me to convert all my books in to a digital format and junk them. I love this friend and value his input, but his suggestion made me think of his room. It was like an Apple advert, all white and clean, nothing amiss or out of place. Everything of worth, value, or interest, he did on his computer or phone. That he had a physical, analogue now seems to me an extravagance out of character for him. He had a collection of old, boxed PC games, but I’m pretty sure he’s since made images of the discs, written down the keys, and disposed of them one way or another. I would have gained space in following his lead, but I would have lost that sense of containment and context that I needed, and still need.

I picked my Kindle back up again because of some mandatory update shenanigans that would have forced me to flash it myself, and that would have been a pain in the arse. I have one, so I may as well use it. I’ve been reading the odd free classic on it, mostly ones I don’t own or only have in big bus-unfriendly omnibus editions (H.G. Wells, mainly). I’ve discovered that choice can be a bad thing. It’s not so bad on my Kindle as on my phone (on which I can tab out and check twitter), but as with most things digital, distraction reigns. If I’m reading, say, Pride and Prejudice, and get even slightly bored, I’ll just start reading Bleak House. What’s that, a five page description of a street? Boring. I’ll give some Hugo a go (go). I have found it difficult to read heftier classics on a screen. I miss the weight, and I find it too easy to stop. As much as people say reading War and Peace or Middlemarch could and should be fun (and is), it is still a challenge. A Kindle (or god forbid, my phone), makes giving up even easier. Having the doorstop in your hand makes it feel like a weapon your taking with you on an excursion, so you can swat the twin insects of Facebook and Twitter.

It certainly is good for sampling, though, and that’s what I can see the long term use of my Kindle being. I can turn the distraction in to something useful. Fill it with the canon, courtesy of Gutenberg, then dip in and out. Anything I find that piques my immediate interest I can go and get a hard copy of, and enjoy properly. There’s nowt wrong with reading on a screen, and it even has advantages (like FREE BOOKS), but you really shouldn’t read War and Peace on a tablet or a phone if it can be helped.

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