Recently, I saw an author on twitter tell someone that an ebook they’d tweeted about looked great but they should get a physical book instead of an ebook. It wasn’t the first time, it most definitely won’t be the last. This snobbishness about ebooks, this assumption that a paper book is the only “real” way to read, is offputting and unhelpful. It doesn’t (in most cases) change the material being read, as long as the ebook isn’t pirated. The accessibility of ebooks is incredibly important.
I don’t think they’ll “take over”, for a range of reasons: many people are emotional about books, making a connection with the object of the book itself (certainly I do); people often find studying from books easier than from ebooks; shopping for books is an activity in itself; to name just a few. I don’t think that replacing libraries with free ereaders is the way forward, but I do think they have their place. But I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss them, either.
Three years ago, I went to Italy for the summer, as an au pair. I had no idea what I’d be doing the whole time, but I also knew that 23kg was not enough for all the books I was likely to read, and so did my parents, so they bought me a kindle for my birthday, and I loaded it up with all sorts (including some of the French novels I was supposed to have read during the degree I’d just finished). Even without carrying three months’ worth of books, I was only just under the baggage weight limit – and coming home, I was slightly over, which led to frantically removing things and stuffing them into my rucksack, and very nearly having to kiss goodbye to a litre of local olive oil and a kilo of hazelnuts). The town I lived near, Finale Ligure, is a smallish one, with few English-speaking tourists. I spoke no Italian beyond “ciao” when I arrived, and had to learn it fast in order to speak to the girls’ grandmother and her friends, who we saw at the beach every afternoon. I certainly couldn’t read Italian, so that would have left me with the four shelves of English books in one of the two bookshops – mostly crime novels (I read my first Agatha Christie) and Harry Potter, with a few romance novels, and all at around 9€ each. Seeing as I was only earning 50€ a week (which paid for trips on my Sundays off, and not much else – I came back with less money than I went with, because I also had to pay my flights to get there), that would have made reading difficult. But having a kindle meant that, between swimming, eating gelato, badgering the girls to do their homework, taking them to tennis lessons and piano lessons and their friends’ houses, and working out what Grandma and her friends were saying to me, I could read without worrying that I would run out of book and have to spend a fifth of my week’s wages on a new one.
And then, last May, I injured my back. It was pretty bad – I couldn’t walk properly for a while, I collapsed, and I was in a lot of pain. For ages, I couldn’t carry much. But I still had my hour-long commute to get through. My kindle saved me from two hours of boredom a day, because I could still read, without having to balance off the weight of a novel against how strong I felt that day. I got better, and stronger, and don’t have to worry about that any more, but for many people, this is a reality that doesn’t go away with some strengthening exercises and a few weeks of painkillers like it did for me. For people who cannot easily leave their home, or who do not have space to keep books, or benefit from the reduced prices of many ebooks, or whose library delivery service does not offer the books that they want to read, an ereader can offer them a lot.
There are also some excellent ways to access ebooks online that means you don’t have to go through Amazon: in the UK, Hive, the online collective of independent booksellers, has an ebook site. Humble Bundle sometimes do book bundles – choose what you pay for about six ebooks, and if you pay above the average amount at that time, you’ll get extra ones, too, and some of the money goes to charity.
These days, I use my kindle less than I used to: working in a library means I have a lot of books available to me for no effort at all, and I am choosier about the books I buy to keep. But I do still use it, and it did me an invaluable service when I needed it most. They’re not evil, they’re not wrong, they’re not less. Many people prefer physical books, for any number of reasons, and that is fine, but it’s no excuse to shame anyone else for how they choose to read.