Every time I finish a book and send it off to the editor, I like to get myself something. A present to myself, for all the hard work I've done over the past year. So at the start of this month I finally put my money where my mouth is and bought an e-ink reader, specifically a Sony PRS-500 e-reader with e-ink display.
The Sony PRs-500 is the successor to the Sony Librie, which was available only in Japan and wiped every book put into it after it had been there for sixty days, in a breathtaking display of corporate stupidity. The PRS 500 does nothing of the sort, fortunately.
Since the 500 came out, the 505 has been introduced; and at the time of writing, is now available for pre-order in the UK. Apparently it's a step up from the 500, but there's a mental limit in my head beyond which I just can't yet bring myself to spend when it comes to purchasing an ebook reader, no matter how shiny and gadgety. So I picked up the older model - the 500 - from an online seller for considerably less than it would cost me to purchase the 505 (it'll go for about £200).
There has been yet more talk recently on the impact of ebooks online, particularly in terms of Tor's promotional release of a couple of dozen of their books as free ebooks, including several titles which are already quite well known and successful. Esquire magazine is putting an e-ink display powered by a 90-day battery on a hundred thousand copies of one of its upcoming issues. The leading ebook devices were recently rated on The Gadget Show, and the internet is full of haters and lovers talking about the technology. Either it's a sign of the end, or the best thing that ever happened to writers - or, more usually, something in between.
I had to get one of these things, partly to satisfy my curiousity, partly because it feels like a prop out of the tv shows I watched when I was a kid, and partly - and most justifiably - because I'm in the Far East until next year, and any physical, ink-and-paper books I buy here I'm going to have to mail back home or lug on the plane. Not only that, I can store hundreds - potentially thousands - of ebooks on my Sony Reader. Any books I've purchased can be easily re-downloaded from whichever site I bought it from if I ever lose or irreparably damage the device.
Since I got it, it's rarely been away from my hands. It's easy to read - in fact, it's easier to read in sunlight or bright light than any computer screen. It looks like actual printed letters - until you hit the next page button and, boom, it blanks out and refreshes with new text.
It is, as they say, as light as a paperback, but thinner. The fake leather jacket it comes with probably weighs as much as the reader itself. The quality of the appearance of the text is really quite startling. The screen is at times slightly reflective - something I understand has been improved on in later ebook readers.
It lacks, of course, the physical tactility of paper, yet the eye is very much fooled into believing it's looking at letters printed onto something very paper-like - with the caveat that the 'paper' is light grey in colour.
What really needs to be addressed about ebook readers in contrast to their printed cousins has more to do with habit and tactility than anything else.
I have, like many people reading this blog, a certain emotional investment in the owning of and display of paper books. When we (people like you and me) finish reading a book, we don't stick it in a box in a cupboard - we put them on display, on shelves. We like to be seen to be readers, to have the breadth of our reading and our tastes on full display. We covet books as physical artefacts. Or at least those of who are voracious readers do - by which I mean, say, anyone who owns more than a hundred books (almost eight hundred in my case, although it would be considerably more if the titles I know I won't miss or didn't particularly like in the first place weren't constantly winnowed out and given to friends).
There is, indeed, a smell and tactility to real books that e-readers cannot match.
And yet, and yet ...
When I first moved out of home and into a flat with friends lo, so many years ago, there were two things that caused me the greatest difficulty when it came to the physical process of moving. A collection of nearly a thousand vinyl lp's, and almost as many books, went with me. They had to be stored, they had to be visible, and I sure as hell wasn't going to leave them behind. They felt like they were part of me. And yet every time I wanted to move to a different flat - and I moved around quite a lot over the next several years - I had to drag this vast tonnage of plastic and paper with me every single time.
I knew people who had much less 'stuff' than me. If they wanted to move flat, they could get everything they owned into a backpack and off they went. I envied them, but I couldn't bring myself to ever contemplate losing my books and albums. It simply wasn't an idea I was prepared ever to entertain.
And yet I now have almost my entire vinyl collection in mp3 format, crammed onto a device about the same size as a packet of cigarettes. The vinyl has indeed been consigned to a cupboard in a flat back in Glasgow, a long way from Taipei. I don't miss them nearly as much, perhaps because I no longer assign them the same value as I do my books.
And not just books: almost a hundred issues of Interzone. Maybe a hundred more of more of obscure publications like SF Eye, New Pathways, and many more that seem indelibly linked into my experience of being of a certain mind and in a certain time and place. Stuff that all led and fed into the process of my becoming a professional writer. Indispensable, in other words; but far from practical when when it comes to having room for them.
It is now feasible for me to store my entire book collection on a device that is the reading equivalent of an MP3 player. On one hand, this creates a sense of freedom; I don't have to carry them all around with me if i don't want to, or as I travel around the globe. On the other hand, I still very much value my dead tree books, and have a sufficient emotional tie to them I wouldn't want to give them up. In fact, I still very much want to continue buying actual books - perhaps the ultimate indicator of how caught in the middle I am, I want at this moment to own both the electronic and paper versions of each book I buy.
I still can't quite get my head around the notion of reading a book and not being able to put it on my bookshelf.
(A brief aside: I could spend some time going into the negatives of the ebook readers. My purchase of the Sony was carefully considered, but done in the full knowledge of the many, many things that are still broken in the ebook market, something Charlie Stross has discussed at length in his blog. But there are always ways to circumvent the ridiculous limitations placed on such devices by their manufacturers, and I've been more than happy to apply those hacks when and where possible in order to be able to purchase and read the books I want to purchase and read. There are still plenty of good reasons for people to want to hold off buying an ebook reader just yet; but these reasons are almost entirely the fault of the manufacturers and their lawyers, rather than of the technology itself.)
After spending some time thinking about it, I realised that for many people, the medium - the physical book - is indistinguishable from the message contained therein: the text. They are one and the same. Yet at the same time, I know this is partly out of habit. I grew up with books this way, so my habits and inclinations are very much fixed this way.
But even so, there's a clear element of snobbishness in criticisms of e-ink readers in the press. There have been too many condemnatory articles in papers such as The Guardian where authors or critics will, in the process of rhapsodising about their collection of hardbacks and the many crammed shelves of their houses, reveal themselves to be precisely the kind of person who covets books not merely for their content, but for what possession of them says (whether consciously or otherwise) about their own perceptions of who they are and what social stratum they occupy.
To dismiss ebook readers out of hand while being photographed in some well-appointed study filled to the brim with books is to identify one as distinctly middle-class, with middle-class aspirations. They are invariably people who have a small portable television wedged into one tight corner of their living room for fear they might be seen as having 'populist' tastes, and if they have a computer, it's similarly a small, cheap laptop kept well out of sight.
This kind of attitude makes me feel much more positively towards my e-reader. Yes I had qualms, but now I have one I can't imagine not having one. I live in terror of being caught waiting for a train or bus without having it to hand. I'm reading much, much more than I have for a long time, simply because of the convenience of the device.
Another reason so many of the arguments put forth by naysayers irritate the hell out of me is they appear blinkered to one of the primary benefits of e-readers - the potential democratisation of reading, in the same way knowledge has become easily available over the internet. Yes, the devices are expensive, but although I don't think they'll become as cheap as a paperback for a long, long time, they nonetheless offer an immediate, easy-on-the-eye reading experience that can be used anywhere in the world that has computer access. That, in turn, means access to tens of thousands of out of copyright but still enormously influential novels and texts as well as more current works that can be bought and read without needing to rely on the presence of a well-stocked bookshop with plenty of titles in English And believe me, here in Taipei, I can tell you for a fact that from over here the English-speaking world looks very small and very far away.
I find myself irritated by the sniffiness of certain critics who can afford the luxury of sufficient living space they can afford to decorate their walls with thousands of books. I hope the e-reader gets into the hands of all the people who love reading but simply don't have the room for all the books they want, who, like me, don't have the luxury of a well-appointed library in their tiny flats.
To be fair, there are many other issues to be considered when it comes to the potential of ebook technology, not least the issue of how it will affect the careers and incomes of writers. I recently signed a contract allowing Pan to sell my books in e-format myself. I don't think the paper book will die. The e-ink technology will very likely be subsumed into more general-purpose devices, but there will - I believe and hope - be a continuing demand for dedicated reading devices that mimic the look and feel of a book while being able to store tens of millions of words of text. If you like reading - if you really like reading - it might be that you can't afford to not have an e-reader over the next couple of years.