The death of print: a premature obituary

I bought a new Kindle over Xmas: the Fire HD. It replaces the original e-ink Kindle, the one with the little keyboard I could never get the hang of.

As a piece of techno-kit the Fire HD is pretty impressive and, at £159 for 16gb, good value too. The screen looks as high-definition as the latest iPad to me, which means text is crisp and clear. I did wonder whether I shouldn’t go for the cheaper e-ink paperwhite Kindle instead. That looks a more ‘bookish’ device, and it’s lighter with a longer battery life.

But the Fire does a lot more – you can catch up with TV on iPlayer for one thing. I’ve rather come to the conclusion that I prefer high-def LCD text to high-def e-ink. Not sure why, and many people will feel differently. But I’m happier with that brighter text and I don’t want to read outdoors in the sun.

The main reason I wanted something new was to deal with some reference work on a couple of projects I have coming up. In other words I want to go through some books I’ve bought and simply highlight relevant passages, then see those same passages come up in the same Kindle book in an app on the PC. Amazon’s systems do this brilliantly. You can sit in an armchair with a touch device like the Fire and simply hold down on the screen at the relevant point then highlight the passage in question. By the time I’m back at the desk those highlights are already there, pointing me back to the places I want to be.

One major omission though: you can’t do this with your own documents. In other words you can’t send a Word manuscript to your Kindle, mark it up, and have the markup appear on a desktop Kindle app. Personal documents only work with specific Kindle hardware, not the Kindle apps than run on computers, phones and iPads. Damn.

Still, it’s a very useful function for someone with reference needs, particularly if you’re as bad at filing physical paper as I am. If I tried this using sticky notes and a pen something would surely get lost along the way.

Do I intend to read this way generally?

Etymologicon-5CGood question. Kindle hardware comes with an offer of one free book a month from the Kindle Lending Library. So I casually downloaded one of the first to catch my eye, Mark Forsyth’s The Etymologicon. Quite why I don’t know since it was only 99p to buy the book in the first place.

It looks a great piece of work, an entertaining runaround a good few oddities of the English language written with great wit, enthusiasm and clarity. But the truth is… the more I read, the more I wanted to feel it in my hands as a printed paper title.

There’s absolutely no visible logic in the statements I’m about to make. But here, for what they’re worth, is how I feel about reading an ebook now, after a couple of years using the medium.

  • It’s fine for linear fiction, particularly shorter works.
  • Anything of substantial length, especially if it pushes the envelope by flitting backwards and forwards through time or engaging in a few metafiction tricks, is quite hard to follow on a single electronic screen.
  • You can’t make written notes — it’s just too fiddly, whether it’s a touch device or one with a keyboard.
  • Non-fiction only succeeds for me if I’m using it for reference and doing that swipe-highlight trick that works so well. If I’m reading non-fiction for pure pleasure ebooks just feel well… wrong.
  • Anything that has illustrations feels wrong too, no matter how clear or high res the screen. It lacks the feel of illustration in print, which is not simply two-dimensional. There are practical issues too. Because readers can choose font and font size themselves graphics can bounce around the place on smaller reader screens. I discovered this very directly when I published Writing A Novel with Scrivener. Someone emailed me to say the illustrations kept appearing on pages of their own. It turned out the reader had upped the font size to the biggest available and was using one of the oldest, smallest ereaders available. Nothing I could do…

That still makes ebooks very useful. But talking to people over Christmas I did get the impression that a good deal of the gee-whizz factor has gone out of the market. Yes they’re handy, yes they’re cheap and yes they can save you taking a stack of paper books on holiday.

In truth though they’re simply another way to read. Not the only way. And an awful lot of people who a year ago were saying they’d given up on print seem to me to be having second thoughts. Who can blame them? Convenience is one thing, but it’s the whole story.

All things being equal – which of course they’re not – wouldn’t you prefer a paper book?

I’m not a Luddite. Far from it.  But without a good reason — such as reference work or the need to take a large number of volumes on the road — give me real ink on real paper any day.

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