E-readers... and the value of a real book

David Phelan confesses to preferring analogue to digital when it comes to books

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The Independent Tech

I know, I know, I’m a gadgets writer, and writing this may get me thrown out of the Tech Journalists Union (I say union, but it’s more of a knitting circle). But I’ve yet to find an ebook reader that beats a book. Of course, some of them are great, and I’m loathe to be without my iPad mini, but however good they are, they ain’t the real thing.

I love the way I can tell by holding a book, even with my eyes closed, how far I am from the end. A little note that I’m 37 per cent through at the bottom of the page just doesn’t mean much. I like the way the content of the pages is fixed. With an ebook, if there’s a reference at the top of a page to redirect me to a note at the back (though back is a somewhat fluid concept in an ebook), I can click on it. But when I return to the original page, that reference may have moved to the middle of the page or anywhere. It’s annoying, especially if like me you remember something in a book because it was two thirds down a left-hand page a couple of chapters ago. Of course, you can search in ebooks, but you need the exact words. If all I remember is that it was something like “Release the battle hounds” it’s not going to find “Let slip the dogs of war”, is it?

Where this search feature comes into its own is when a character reappears after a long absence and you haven’t a clue who Mr Nupkins or Fizzytinkle might be. Type the name and previous mentions will remind you. (Nupkins, of course, is a character in The Pickwick Papers, while Fizzytinkle is a condition treatable with antibiotics.)

Unquestionably, ebook readers are amazingly convenient. With one you can – and anyone who has one will tell you this quite early on – carry a thousand books at the same time. That’s good, but to be honest I’ve never needed more than half a dozen books, max, for the longest holiday. Still, it’s more convenient on a plane, say, except for take-off and landing, when you can smugly pull out a real book.

And we’ve been printing paper books, magazines and newspapers for so long that we’re really good at this now. Editors and designers choose fonts meticulously, but on an e-reader you’re limited to a choice of half a dozen or fewer. And you probably won’t change from the default.

Ebook reader displays are either dark grey and light grey rather than the true black and white print offers or else they’re backlit screens with white light shining out around the text – both are more tiring than paper.

And the recognition that your neighbour on the train is reading the same book as you can be a pleasure. With an e-reader, we all look like we’re reading the same. Though admittedly, it’s less embarrassing if you’re currently working your way through Fifty Shades of Grey that nobody can see the front cover.

For now at least, we have the choice of paper or electronic books, but by the time we don’t, let’s hope the technology has caught up. Books are immeasurably rewarding, however you read them. I just find paper more satisfying.