In praise of books - proper books

You'll never get an e-book reader with the authentic smell of the library, says Eleanor Doughty

I have finished two books this week! Although my 10-year-old-self would be embarrassed to be associated with such literary sluggishness, I am chuffed. Working full-time, this is no mean feat. The speed of the Hammersmith and City line thankfully provides opportunities for literary wish fulfillment.

On a recent trip to a friend’s country home, I was asked to suggest books for an 11-year-old girl. The little darling sniffily reported back that most of my suggestions had been dramatised, ergo she’d watched them so didn’t need to read them. Gulp.

If you’re a real bookie like me, a collector, studier of a literary range poorer than you expected from undergraduate level or simply someone with time to read for pleasure, then you might feel my pain. It hadn’t really occurred to me that watching the moving picture version might be preferable. But it did strike me that technology has stamped on the new generation’s power of completing a book. And that makes me sad.

I’m sure that finishing an e-text is impact-free – you can’t (safely) slop a Kindle down in triumph when you’ve finished. You just press a grey button and that’s it. Done. Job jobbed. With a book there’s that smell and the feel of pages – especially in library books. With a Kindle you can’t imagine who might have read this copy before you, and I think that’s half the fun, making up your own stories in the books you read. It’s a bizarre kind of meta-fiction, reader-endorsed. 

I grew up initially in a world without the Internet. The refreshing elements of which were full of Dorling Kindersley encyclopedias and left-handed fountain pen smudged writing. I didn’t tap away on a keyboard to find the answers and I certainly didn’t have an iPad. We bought the paper if we wanted the news, it came with the milk. If you wanted to find out whether Great Expectations came before or after Oliver Twist, you looked it up in a book and not on a soulless piece of metal that guessed what you wanted to say before you said it.

Taking off my rose-tinted spectacles, I acknowledge that life pre-technology was more challenging. Pub quizzes were harder too, I’m sure. I spent many formative years puzzle-solving in dictionaries like the super bookworm I was. I even had a bookworm bookmark, that’s how wormy I was. Can you feel my pride? 

A book presents a challenge. Now I’m mostly concerned with how to fit it in a handbag, woe is me. Back in the pre-www world, I used to pretend to my Mummy that I hadn’t read further than she said. It was a task she now kindly reminds me was designed to push me to read. Because as soon as someone says don’t do something, it immediately becomes the priority. I finished a lot of books that way. If I needed somewhere else to go then I found a book. As an only child, Malory Towers’ Darrell Rivers and Gwendoline Lacey were my siblings. And each and every A.A Milne character, of course. I can still recite chunks of Winnie the Pooh to this day.

While naughty corporate statistics show enormous growth in e-books, we must fight for the future of our pasts. At age eleven, the thirteen young-adult library books a week I devoured conditioned me with experiences I couldn’t have on my own. Reading about other people helped me to write about other people – and myself. Education exists outside curriculums.

So if someone asks you what you’d like for your birthday, support the paperback. No one ever got a headache from the backlight of a book now, did they?

Eleanor Doughty is a second-year student at Queen Mary, University of London. Follow her on Twitter here. She probably won't follow you back.

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