Can e-readers replace books?

Sam Raby 15 February 2015

Ever found yourself trailing your fingertips along the dust-laced edges of antique bookshelves, tracing the ornate lettering engraved into the rustic spines of huge leather-bound volumes? Or leafing leisurely through vast manuscripts of printed words and images, carefully inked onto fine paper that has withstood the test of time and remains to be revelled under your touch? The sight and feel of a book can animate your senses, can take you on journeys beyond the unknown through the beautiful words emblazoned on fragile pages, bound up in vast volumes and stacked on sooty shelves. But all that experience is now lost, deemed superfluous in an age where the Kindle and its competitors contest for the prime position in your hand.

No more do we linger along library shelves, searching meticulously for longed-for literature; nor do we waste hours scanning various bookshops to find that one text that we must read. Life is far more simple nowadays; we can simply click a computer screen to buy a novel in a ‘one-click’ purchase, press a button to flick a page, and even type out annotations on a miniature keyboard, all built into the same handheld device that carries thousands of books in the space of a tiny novella. It even, rather handily, fits inside your bag.

Kindles have become a must-have item for the dull businessman, the frantic student, the indecisive holiday-maker or the bored traveller. The ability to hold a library of books, hundreds of authors, a multitude of genres and a wide-ranging selection of choices in the palm of your hand is a miracle. Not only do we save time, money and effort that it requires to find, buy and carry books, but we are also saving the planet, one rainforest at a time!

Thus the Kindle and its contemporaries are revolutionising the way we read, making it more economical, efficient and easier. But in the heat of this new technology rests a paradoxical crux: in improving, enhancing and invigorating the reading experience, we are losing the true essence of what it really means to read. What it means to indulge in the written word, to experience the bounds of a different world through the materiality of a tangible book and to telescope the entire verbal, oratory and tactile tradition of reading into a single voyage through physical pages of print. Despite its advantages in the rapidly-developing world of technology that we inhabit, there can be no doubt that the physical book will always retain an essential place in our hearts.

As the writer and animator Mo Willems once said, “A book, being a physical object, engenders a certain respect that zipping electrons cannot. Because you cannot turn a book off, because you have to hold it in your hands, because a book sits there, waiting for you, whether you think you want it or not, because of all these things, a book is a friend. “It’s not just the content, but the physical being of a book that is there for you always and unconditionally.”