Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Kindle is for lowbrow, hard copy for highbrow?

That's the main message of this Telegraph article, which did some kind of statistically dodgy survey and found that while 71% of the books (real ones) on respondents shelves were 
autobiographies, political memoirs and other weighty non-fiction titles,
the most popular books on Kindle are - surprise - the popular genres like mystery, thriller, romance and fantasy. It's supposedly because if you're using an ereader, people can't judge a book by its cover, as it were. It frees readers from the shackles of their intelligent, thoughtful public image and allows them to indulge their mucky desires for fluffy pink romance and heaving flesh. 

Let's just dispense with the things we should ignore before we address the underlying point: 

  1. We don't know how many people were surveyed - 71% of how many?
  2. We don't know how accurate the survey was - it seems unlikely that people really have that many 'weighty non-fiction titles'.
  3. It didn't seem to count library books borrowed - people borrow thrillers and romances because they'll only read them once, whereas they might buy (or be given) a hardback copy of Churchill's memoir. 
Anyway, ignoring these journalistic stupidities, let's get to the issue: do people really read more lowbrow books when fellow commuters can't see what they're reading?

I can only answer for myself, but I suspect I am at least partially representative. I've got a Sony ereader, the touch screen PRS-600 version (it's red) and I love it. I've had it a couple of years and I read massively more now than before I had it. I always read a lot, but it somehow made it even easier to just get a book out at any opportunity (even in the pub while I wait for my companion to come back from the loo). 

I don't buy ebooks because they're so outrageously expensive - it costs just as much as for the hard copy, which you can at least sell or give away if you want to. And I still don't quite trust digital media not to disappear in a puff of data one day. So for books I want to keep, I still buy a real one. 

I got my ereader (I justified getting it) for university. I thought that it would be a handy thing to have a device that I could load up with PDFs of journal articles and be able to maximise my time by reading on the bus - A4 paper is not great for doing this with, never mind the environmental issues of printing everything you want to read. I did and still do do this, so a large number of the 'books' on mine are actually papers on linguistics - it's especially good for theses which you can't print because they're so long. 

But although I didn't intend to read novels on it, I actually have done that even more than reading academic papers. My books fall into two categories: classics and trash. 

I downloaded loads of free classics when I first got the reader (Austen, Dickens, that kind of thing) and Project Gutenberg has kept me in free material since. I started off with Austen, because I knew I already liked her, and read the whole lot. She's ace. Then I thought I'd try 'Wuthering Heights', and it was dismal. Don't bother with that one. I've worked my way through some Poe, Trollope, E.M. Forster (also brilliant) and various others. I re-read all the Jules Verne books, always a pleasure. I even tried 'A Christmas Carol' but left my Dickens education there. Now I'm reading a Hardy book. 

Another author I rediscovered was Arthur Conan Doyle. I had, of course, being a sci-fi fan, read 'The Lost World', and I re-read that with delight. But then, I realised, I hadn't read much Sherlock Holmes at all - I remedied that immediately. I worked my way through every story I could find and barely put down my ereader. Thus was my descent into trash begun. Agatha Christie is also available for free, so I read stacks of them. 

This reminded me how much I like crappy crime thrillers and horror novels. My aunt works at a library which was an early ebook lender, and she got me a membership. From that day on, I borrowed nothing but utter trash, beginning with Dan Brown. In my defence, I wanted to see if it was as god-awful as people said. I couldn't check before, as there was no way I was going to read that on the bus, but now here was my opportunity. It was that awful, but strangely compelling. I read all his others. 

I'm indiscriminate and uncritical. I read whatever there is, and it's an escape from work and proper reading. So yes, I do read much, much more lowbrow books than I did before. But I also read much, much more highbrow books than I did before. And in general, I read much, much more than I did before. Which was already a lot. And furthermore, I'm certainly not embarrassed about what I read, as many of the Telegraph's respondents are. 

But one side-effect is that now I'm shyer about it. I recently read 'The Girl Who Played With Fire', by Steig Larsson, as an actual paper book. This is a perfectly respectable book, not to be ashamed of. But simply that fact that people could see what I was reading made me feel exposed, somehow. 

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