I was surprised with the gift of a Kindle last week. I have long flirted with the idea of getting one; for travelling, mainly, as I always end up filling half of my suitcase with books whenever I go on holiday. However, I have never been sufficiently convinced of their usefulness to actually fork out for one. I love the look and feel of books, particularly vintage and antique hardbacks that carry their history in their scars. It’s part of the pleasure of the reading experience to see the marks left behind by previous owners of your volume; the words they have underlined, the tea rings they have left on the cover, the dedication from a friend written on the flyleaf, the faded flower pressed within the pages. They are passed from hand to hand, life to life, home to home, and having them on your shelf forms part of your history. What greater markers are there of the stages of life we pass through than the books that we read? With everything stored electronically, a mere icon on a screen, there is no permanence, no aesthetics, no history. There is no visual chronology to refer to, no marks of your hand left behind on the surface of the pages. The romance of reading disappears entirely.
But. Not all books are meant to be kept and treasured. Not all books form part of our psyche in the way certain favourites do. Not all books have been passed from hand to hand, and not all need to. Sometimes you want to read the latest bestseller, but you don’t want to keep a copy of a cheap, mass produced paperback on your shelves. You’ll probably never read it again. It will just go to a charity shop, joining many other unwanted copies on the shelves, which will inevitably end up in the recycling bin. In these days of the modern publishing industry, when thousands of books are published every month, books are becoming increasingly disposable commodities. Surely it is better for the environment to have these books produced digitally, removing the costs and carbon footprint involved in the production of a paperback, and allowing for quick, inexpensive and waste free consumption?
This weekend, I have downloaded and read the second in the Hunger Games trilogy. It cost me less than a magazine, I don’t need to find space for an unattractive paperback on my shelf, and I was able to read it at just the second I wanted to, without having to leave the house or wait for a parcel to be delivered. While shopping for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (which is amazing and addictive, by the way), I came across a huge selection of free classic novels to be downloaded instantly. The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes? Don’t mind if I do. A lovely selection of Wilkie Collins’ novels? Yes please! The entire collection of Trollope’s Palliser novels? Mine! I’ve now got them all sitting happily on my Kindle, waiting for me to enjoy, and I don’t need a whole new bookcase to store them all. This is where the practical benefits of the Kindle outweigh the voice of romanticism. For those of us who don’t have enormous houses, space to store books is limited. It would be lovely to own all of the classics, but I don’t have the room for them. I don’t really need them as physical items; digital will do very well. I love that I can get hold of so many classic novels for absolutely nothing, and I can carry them around with me effortlessly wherever I go. With this much available at my fingertips, my Kindle has already paid for itself!
I think that we are enormously lucky to be able to live in an era where it is possible for us to have so much choice and accessibility to the written word. I will never stop buying books, because I love them as objects just as much as I love the stories they contain. My favourite books will always have pride of place on my shelves. However, with our transitory lives and increasingly overfilled planet, digitising much of what we consume is simply common sense. I feel quite silly for holding out for so long. Having a Kindle hasn’t reduced my love of reading at all; it’s actually opened more reading doors to me. I am so pleased I have one. The only problem is, now I have nothing to stop me from buying more books – there’s no storage limit in cyberspace!