E-readers: A love-hate relationship

Image credit: JANEB13

E-readers first appeared in the late 1990s, but only became popular in the mid-2000s, probably as a result of the widespread use of mobile devices and the development of electronic paper, a technology that allows screens to reflect light the same way ordinary paper would. In any case, E-readers don’t seem to have gained a massive popularity over physical books, at least in the UK: have a saunter around any coffee shop in Cambridge and you’ll see people working on their laptops, listening to podcasts on their phones and even people reading physical books, but you will rarely find anyone using an e-reader.

This isn’t to say e-readers aren’t popular. They generate discussion, they are hated and loved, and about 28% of households in the UK own one. Considering the frequent claims that fewer people are reading and, more specifically, that fewer people are reading for pleasure, the fact that about a third of the population has access to an e-reader is compelling.

So, what are the advantages of an e-reader? Is it better than a physical book? Worse? Is it a substitute? Personally, I’m a huge fan of physical books, and yet, I can’t wait until a time when, as is currently the norm with music, buying a physical copy of a book will get you access to the electronic version as well. Why? Because as much as I enjoy the physicality of a ‘real’ book and the fact that I can leaf through it and find my physical place in it, I find my Kindle incredibly useful. Let me explain.

I have always loved travelling. It is the only time I feel completely free: when I’m somewhere foreign and I can’t understand the language and there’s only what I’m seeing today and where I might go tomorrow. I also love travelling because, in my experience, it’s inextricably linked with reading. I’ve been known to carry over four books with me for a four week trip. This might not seem like much, but that was after my dad made cuts (I once wanted to carry the whole Harry Potter series with me, plus another four books for when I was done rereading it). I also usually buy books anywhere I go (finding a bookshop that sells books in a language I understand is often the first thing I do when I arrive at a new city), meaning that I’ll often end up carrying between 3 and 7 kg of books whenever I travel. I don’t think my buying books whilst on holiday will ever change, but the Kindle has significantly reduced the number of books I take with me from home (and the weight of my luggage).

I also love having the Kindle when I’ve almost finished a book and I have a day trip somewhere. Before the Kindle, I would carry the book I was finishing and the book I wanted to start. Now, I just carry the book I’m finishing and the Kindle. This may not seem like a huge change, until you find yourself carrying two 600 page tomes in your handbag.

The other thing I like about the Kindle (specifically) and e-readers (more generally) is that it’s possible to get certain books, especially classics, virtually for free. I particularly enjoy this feature because I don’t like buying copies of books that my parents already own, and I can’t always borrow these books from them (they live overseas). Of course, I could just go to the library, but some books I just like being able to have a copy of that I can go back to, even if the physical copy I would prefer is not available.

Now, I don’t think e-readers will ever replace physical books. The touch and smell of paper and the feeling of skimming through the pages are all too pleasurable. But e-readers can be useful, and they can be complementary to physical books. They should not be vilified; after all, they help a lot of people (I know many people appreciate the fact that font sizes can be changed, for example), but equally they should also not be glorified as ‘the future of publishing’. They are, more simply, a tool to be used and enjoyed, if we so choose.

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