Bring on the eBooks

The Sony Reader was recently released in the UK, and there’s consequently been lots of talk about eBooks and eReading, most of it really frustrating. This is because the media insist on building enormous straw men at which to fire grumpy people.

For whatever reason, it’s been decided that the appropriate frame for this discussion is ‘eBooks vs. Books’. eBooks are the future and will replace Books, you see. Is this a good thing? Do we want this? Why not ask the nearest curmudgeon for their informed opinion. The One Show had some muppet saying how great Books are and how much eBooks pale in comparison, then a little questioning by Adrian Chiles revealed she’d failed to connect the Sony Reader to her computer. This is representative of everything I’ve seen, and it’s all a jangly bag of moof.

Of course Books don’t need batteries. Of course the second-hand Book market is important. I’ll even acknowledge somewhat bonkers arguments about eBooks lacking ‘soul’. But it all misses the point: nobody wants to replace Books with eBooks. That’s just silly. I really don’t see why people get so hostile – the two can happily live in harmony.

Look, if it’s not a totally redundant thing to say: I love Books. And not just for what’s in them, I love them as objects too. I’ll pay more for nicely printed books: I could wait for the paperback of The Graveyard Book, but I really want the hardcover because it’s a quality item. I suspect most people are the same. But I don’t feel terribly threatened by eBooks, because I can see exactly how they’d be useful.


For example, there are two books I’d particularly like to get in eBook form. The first is my current read: Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. It’s bloody enormous, and just too big to easily carry anywhere. My university bag is packed tight, and while I can generally squeeze in a standard paperback, this one takes up badly-needed space. And if I do squeeze it in, it’s still a pain. I always grab a sandwich for the train home, but I can’t eat with one hand and hold Cryptonomicon with the other – it’s too heavy. Both of these problems would be solved with an eBook version.

The other advantage to a digital version of this particular tome is searchability. Neal Stephenson says something interesting every other sentence, but the chances of finding half-remembered wonderments in Cryptonomicon are pretty small. 

Obviously there’d be disadvantages. It’s yet another gadget to increase my already-quite-high muggability; it could run out of power; etc.. But none of these are deal-breakers1.

The second book is one I think I’ve mentioned before. My favourite poet is Byron, and ages ago I threw a ‘Complete Works’ into a slightly-below-free-delivery-threshold Amazon basket. The poetry is lovely, but the book sucks.


The paper is very low quality, so the letters aren’t sharp. This is made worse by the godawful font, and it’s printed very small (it’s an A5 book, and the picture shows about half the page). They’ve also – understandably – halved the necessary paper by printing in two columns. So it’s just crowded. But the columns are too small for half the lines, so lots are just one word (I’m prepared to be told this is some weird poetry format, but I don’t think so), which makes a mess. It’s not difficult to read, but it’s far from appealing. And I’ve rarely bothered, to be honest.

All these failures are understandable in a Book. Byron just wrote too damn much. But it’s perfect for the eBook format. An eBook doesn’t care how much data there is. An eBook can use my choice of font. An eBook can enlarge the text so I don’t get eyestrain after ten minutes. An eBook doesn’t need to cram as much text as possible into the page, so I can read it in one column, without truncated lines. Byron himself would prefer an eBook version (well, he’d use it as a distraction while he chats up your girlfriend, anyway).

I can think of plenty more uses. I’m not fond of reading large amounts on a computer screen, for example, and I tend to print off long articles. This is pretty wasteful at times, and I’d far rather use an eBook reader. I also have to haul a load of art theory books on the train from uni every week, and I’d prefer shove them onto a usb stick then read them on a Kindle on the sofa. I’d also like an electronic version of the Guardian for the breakfast table, so I can read only the first 6 pages without feeling guilty about the astonishing waste of paper.

Of course I don’t want to replace all my books. But I’d like electronic copies of them all, please.

  1. The other problem with Cryptonomicon is that I started reading it just as uni began and I now have large amounts of dubious art theory to wade through. The Sony Reader can’t help with this, sadly. []