Friday 15 March 2013

Why ebooks will never be better than paper books

Recently I upgraded from a Kindle app on my iPhone to a Kindle Paperwhite, and I love it. It's small enough to carry around in my coat pocket, contains an entire library of books, the battery lasts for ever, and I can access the Amazon store pretty much at any time (I have the 3G version).

 On a recent bus journey

In fact, there's little to not recommend about it.

On a Paperwhite I can adjust the text size, spacing, width and even the font. I can set the book up any way I want it. It provides a perfect reading experience.

And that's just the ereader. As an author, ebooks offer huge potential and flexibility. I can publish at any time of day or night, and see my book available online within a few hours. All I need is a computer with Word. And if I find an error, I can nip into the file, correct it, and reupload.

There's also the possibility to "keep modern". Say in five years something has changed in the world that renders one of my storylines obsolete or absurd. I open up the file, make a few edits, reupload. If I want to pretend that the book was recently written, I just unpublish and republish, with a new publication date.

Ebooks can never go out of date. It's perfect.

Or is it?

One thing that paper books have that ebooks will never, ever have, is history.

I don't mean the story, I mean the physical product itself. Books date back hundreds of years, and reading a book that is a hundred years old as opposed to reading a new edition is a completely unique experience.

Recently I found myself on a school trip to a place in Japan called British Hills. It is a study camp/hotel that has been created from original British buildings and contents. Every single thing was bought in England, shipped over, and recreated perfectly. One of the rooms was a library complete with antique British books.

The library at British Hills

Everything in the library is antique, including the books. During some time out of class I had a leaf through, and came across some really interesting stuff.

 The contents page of The Guide to the Home: Vol V (1909)
Do people really write books about how to conduct garden parties these days?

How to deal with Eczema in cats, from The Guide to the Home: Vol V (1909)

Now, I might not be a veterinarian, but I'm pretty sure that putting arsenic on a cat is not a good idea. Also, I loved how they use the phrase, "the size of a shilling". A book called The Guide to the Home from 1909 would be obsolete now. It's content is outdated and it's writing is hardly the stuff to teach in schools. You could argue it has no value at all to the modern home owner. If this was an ebook that someone was hoping to sell, they would surely update the content to be relevant in today's society.

In its current form it has no use. However, as a historical artifact it's wonderful.

Books are not all about content. Books are about history.

This book is no classic. All I could discover about the author was that she died in 1899 and wrote some 200 adventure books. There was no publication date inside the book, nor could I find a record of it on the internet. It's quite possible that this book has been erased from history barring this one single copy.

The world might have forgotten Eaglehurst Towers by Emma Marshall, but it still exists. And the book as an object was wonderful. There were pictures inside, and the edge of the pages had been coloured in the same design as the front. As a product it was intriguing.

The Complete Works of Dickens. I could download everything Dickens ever wrote on to my Paperwhite for free in the next five minutes. But would those files hold the same merit as this old collection of books? Literary merit, maybe, because they would have the same words, (unless someone had updated the files), but in terms of historical merit there's no comparison. I don't know if this collection is priceless, but everything about the way they look, feel and smell certainly makes them unique.

And can there really be any comparison to reading an ancient book in an ancient place? Here's me sat in an old, old chair reading an old, old book. I could have pulled out my Paperwhite and downloaded the complete works of Poe, but it really wouldn't have had the same feeling.

I make a little bit of money selling ebooks, but my heart will never be given over to a computer file. My childhood dream was to walk into a bookshop and see my books on the shelves of a bookstore. In a hundred years I hope someone might find a dog-eared old copy of Tube Riders or Man Who Built the World in a library and sit down in an old chair to read it, looking back on 100-year-old text and thinking perhaps about the long-dead man who first wrote those words down.

What's far more likely however, is that someone will open up a computer fire in some far future version of Starbucks and flick their eyes over whatever font they chose to use, while sipping on some futuristic latte.

And I'm sure that whether they know it or not, they're be much poorer for the experience.

16th March 2013

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