15 March 2010

It's Not Real Fiction...

Frankly, I’m not sure what I think of ebooks.

I understand the convenience, of course: the portability not merely of single volumes but of entire libraries; the fact that said collections take up no more space in the house than a hard disk, rather than drastically reducing the cubic meterage of half the rooms in the house with stacks of dust-amassing shelves.

I admit to using the things occasionally myself – I’ve got a handful of books as text files sitting on the computer, including The Golden Bough and the Bible, which are more readily and helpfully searchable than the paper copies sitting on the shelf just behind my left elbow.

I can’t sit down and read one, though – my eyes get tired too quickly, I’m easily distracted by the other functions of whatever I’m reading them on, I skip too quickly down the non-page and miss important details. I just haven’t the knack and I’m guessing, at 38, that I’m unlikely to acquire it.

More fundamentally than that, though, I love books. Not texts. Books – with covers, font design, pagination, tangible size and weight, texture and smell and rustling whispery noises as the pages turn. I like my great shelves full of the things which I can stroke and pat and line up neatly. I like being able to browse, at home or in a library or bookshop – to select a title to read, buy or borrow based only partly on such data-susceptible factors as the author’s name, title, wordcount, publisher and price. I like the tangible quality of books, and unlike such quantifiable descriptors it’s fundamentally imponderable.

(Well, OK – as an SF author I have to concede that a perfect virtual reproduction of reality is theoretically possible, and within such a world might well choose to construct a library of recreated virtual volumes which one might then explore and read as if one were actually there. But it would seem a technically huge, startlingly pointless and spiritually arid exercise.)

I grew up in my parents’ house surrounded by books – first theirs and then mine – and for that reason I love them and associate them with comfort and security. More than the physical objects, though, I love the imagination, skill and knowledge that they represent. I strongly doubt that one could inculcate a child with that same love by showing them a directory full of text files, even displayed on such a snug and shiny technology as the Amazon Kindle.

On the other hand, if you want to purchase a digital rendition of my immortal prose, then I wouldn’t dream of stopping you. And if you do indeed feel this way, you may be interested to know that my Time Hunter novella Peculiar Lives is now available for $17.61 on the Kindle.

It won’t quite simulate the experience of reading a yellowing Penguin Science Fiction reprint of that original, posthumous volume by Erik Clevedon from 1951. But then, despite my hopeful aspirations, it never really did – even the hardback edition didn’t quite manage that dingy clothbound ex-library feel. If an ebook better fits your reading habits, then do please take advantage of the opportunity.

Personally I want my son to grow up loving the things I love, so while he’s young I won’t be exchanging for their megabyte equivalent the three or four thousand hardbacks and paperbacks which – rather inconveniently, I admit – occupy such a large proportion of our living-space.

(Incidentally, there’s still a reasonable chance that Peculiar Lives will also be released on CD at some point – Fantom Films are supposed to be announcing the next few titles in their range of Time Hunter audiobooks sometime next month. I’d expect those to be The Clockwork Woman, Kitsune and The Severed Man – two at least of which are thoroughly fabulous. It’s a hopeful sign, although it may oblige me to give you the benefit of my opinions on audiobooks.)


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  2. Getting married and moving in a house with not nearly enough space to hold our joint book collection (even after getting rid of several hundred books) has really made me appreciate the idea of ebooks. Spending more time travelling on the nations railways has also made the concept of the ebook reader seem more appealing (if nothing else it would eliminate the question of which of the three or four books I'm currently reading should get taken). The current reality of inflexible and overly restrictive DRM remains a significant barrier: what's the point of buying a book that you can't let your partner read afterwards?

    Anyway, the most sensible thing I have read about the whole debate so far is this: http://craigmod.com/journal/ipad_and_books/. Hope you find it of interest.

  3. I think the only thing that would persuade me to buy an e-book reader would be being able to read on the train. I often run out of book before the train gets me into the station, and then, particularly if it is a crowded train, and I don't have a window seat, I have to play the game of "Avoid Eye Contact" with the people around me. To be able to move on to my next book straight away would be brilliant.

    But - how can you put your fingers between the pages of an e-book? How can you flick forwards a couple of pages to see how far you have to go to the end of the chapter (or just to make sure the hero is ok)?

    And what do your guests do when they are waiting for you to pour a drink and get out the nibbles if all you have on the shelf is one Kindle? It's a lot harder to browse your book collection that way!


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