Linda Grant: Ebooks help me see into a writer's mind

The tragedy of teeny print has been abolished by the ebook and that’s why it is perhaps the world’s first new technology whose early adopters are middle aged

Saturday 01 October 2011 00:00 BST

When I was 20 I was immensely proud of the rows of grey-spined Penguin Modern Classics in my bookcase.

They told me that I was serious about literature and, perhaps of equal significance, they sent out the same message to anyone who came into the room, particularly young men; they were part of what in the animal kingdom we call mating rituals. Several decades on, I have no room to store any more books; my shelves are already doubled up and I don't care what others think of my taste. When one book arrives, another must go to the Oxfam bookshop.

Amazon's announcement on Wednesday of a new range of Kindles, including the Kindle Fire, a tablet to rival the iPad, does not, to me, signal the end of civilisation. I have had a Kindle for exactly a year and my count of the books on the home page shows I've downloaded and read 33 books on it with another 10 waiting to be read.

When I got it, a slightly early adopter just before it became the bibliophile's Christmas present, I was treated by some friends as a traitor to literature. The chief criticism of the Kindle and other e-readers is that "It's not a book". No. It's not. Lacking in the Kindle is the tactile and aesthetic qualities that have served us since the invention of the printing press. You lose the smell of the paper, the weight of the book in your hand, the choice of font, the artwork on the cover. A Kindle is an ugly piece of plastic. If you drop it in the bath you've destroyed more than £100 worth of technology. It won't dry out on the radiator.

It is also not a book in the sense that you do not have to spend all day lugging around in your handbag, for example, the 900 pages of Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate. For those of us who live in cities and are heavily dependent on public transport, the lightness of the Kindle, the knowledge that we can pick it up and read a few pages between stops on the bus or Tube, means that we can read for longer when we're out of the house.

It is also not a book because the font size is not decided for you by the publisher, usually made smaller to save on paper. There are great classics of world literature I can't reread in book form because the print is too small. When I take down my cherished Penguin Modern Classics copy of Camus' The Plague from my shelves, the print looks like fly-droppings. This may mean little to you if you are under 40 and in no need of reading glasses, but the tragedy of teeny print has been abolished by the ebook and that's why it is perhaps the world's first new technology whose early adopters are the middle aged.

The first book I read on my Kindle was Damon Galgut's Booker-shortlisted In a Strange Room. The test of the ebook format was whether it could survive the loss of the paper format. When I, or Galgut, write a novel, we do not write it in a bound book with cover and frontispiece. We used to write on typewriters; now we write on screens. A few writers still compose long hand, but I don't know any; mostly we're staring at the empty space of Word for Mac or that convoluted writers' software, Scrivener.

So when we are writing, as I'm doing now, a screen is the medium and what matters is not paper but the words. The "real" book that I write is 12 point Arial at 150 per cent. The font the publisher decides to give you is nothing to do with me; even the cover only allows me power of veto. I don't design it.

On my brand new Kindle, Galgut's words were identical in their meaning to the ones that appeared in the paper product. As a work of literature it was the same act of imagination as when he had originally typed it. The cover, paper, binding and font were extraneous. I had the peculiar sensation on my Kindle of mainlining direct into Galgut's brain, without the intervening medium of the book's aesthetics.

A year later, I have a sizeable library on my Kindle. I have books I have not yet read but have downloaded because I know that at some point I will be away from home and I'll think, I know what I want to read. And it will not be hundreds or thousands of miles away on my shelves, but there, in my hand. I read more widely because I can download free sample chapters of books, taste them in my mouth, so to speak, before purchase. If a friend recommends a book, or I read a review, I sample it, get to the end and click on the buy button. It is scarily easy to buy more books.

What everyone I know who owns a Kindle has tried to describe is the way it gives you a more intimate relationship with your library. I don't regularly browse my shelves, but when I do, the order in which the books are arranged is a bit haphazard (as a result of years of redecorating and having to dismantle then reassemble in a hurry), and often I can't find what I'm looking for. I am not by any stretch of the imagination a tidy person and the piles of unread books on the coffee table and by my bed have a plaintive, pleading quality to me – Read me, please! After they've been there for a year, in shame I remove them to the shelf where they are forgotten about.

The effect of the Kindle on my life is that I have started to divest myself of many of the older, unreadable books whose print is too little. This was a wrench at first, but then I thought, you know you'll never read this again because you can't. Send it out into the world where someone with younger eyesight can get the pleasure from it. So probably the chief recipient of my Kindle ownership is my local Oxfam shop. Which is good because my neighbourhood, as of Christmas Eve last year, no longer has a proper bookshop. Who killed it? Well, obviously Amazon did, but also the second-hand and remainder bookshops, as well as high rents.

My main argument with Kindle is that it forces me to buy every book from Amazon which ruthlessly controls prices, driving down profits for publishers and authors. If Watersone's launched an e-reader, I'd buy it, but right now my choices are purchasing books from two huge corporations, Amazon or Apple, if I want to read on an iPad which I don't own, and wouldn't use for reading anyway because I like that fact that the Kindle has no distractions in the form of internet or email.

It does one job. It focuses you on reading a book. Amazon's new tablet will, of course, take you down these paths of temptation, and perhaps I'll buy one as a cheaper alternative to the iPad, but not to read on, unless it's a book with illustrations which the monochrome Kindle is useless for. Kindle's current technology is clunky and reassuringly old-fashioned. But on it a book appears in the blink of an eye, like magic. If you care about words more than paper, it is a thing to cherish. But, no, it isn't a book, paper-lovers. You can't show off your erudite taste with it.

Linda Grant's most recent novel is 'We Had It So Good', published by Virago

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