‘Are you going to blog on Kindle or iPad?’ a friend asked me yesterday.
‘Don’t think so,’ I responded, ‘I can’t really, I’ve never even seen one, let alone used one. I wouldn’t have much to say.’
‘That’s never stopped you from starting an argument about something before,’ he replied with full conviction and (painful though it is to admit it) full justice.
‘Hmmm…’ I thought.
But what to write? I mean, my basic perspective is that no e-book reader will ever replace (or even be able to compete with) books. But there are some problems with that.
The arguments about books being peerless in terms of tactile and olfactory experiences have all been around for ages, and much as I’m a passionate advocate of arguments like these, they’ve been done to death. And in any case, the wonderful tactile experience provided by the iPhone is now so well attested to that any argument based on how books feel alone is looking rather shaky.
But then it occurred to me that my prejudice in favour of good old fashioned books could be defended on purely aesthetic and technological grounds.
So here goes… Let’s take the aesthetic elements first.
De gustibus non est disputandum, of course: but does anyone out there think that the Kindle (either the original or the latest version) is more beautiful than the iPad, much less a book? And even if you thought Kindles were fetching before this week, now that Cinderella has come to the ball the Ugly Sisters are looking uglier than ever, are they not?
Now, I yield to nobody in my admiration of Jonathan Ive’s design sensibilities – let’s be frank, his genius – his feel for those expanses of brushed aluminium and clean minimalist lines: form and function writhing in passionate and ecstatic embraces everywhere you look.
But nothing Apple has ever produced, or ever will, is as beautiful as a well-printed book. The reason why has more to do with enduring beauty than immediate beauty. But we’ll get to that.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Folio Society, but a brief look at their catalogue online should have you sobbing with lust. Among the Folio editions I possess is one of Machiavelli’s The Prince that leaves a faint offering of its gilt cover on me every time I pick it up for a browse: it makes my hands look like those of a pharaoh (or like I’m about to go to a costume party in drag, but let’s not split hairs).
And that’s before you get to the sort of leather-bound tome that was printed in the days of yore on thick creamy paper, the imprint of the type on the pages so clear to the touch they might have been embossed, every leaf stitched into a spine that creaks like whale-bone corsetry as you frisk through its pages. It’s been said by a number of people that books have become fetish objects, and having read over that last sentence, I’m the last person to argue with them.
Anyway: enduring beauty.
Remember the first iMacs? The G3s? Bondi blue, translucent case? They were the sexiest thing on the planet in 1998 – but you wouldn’t even use one as an ironically post-modern door stop now. Same goes for every incarnation of the iMac since, up to the present model. Now they’re beautiful. Well, they will be, right up until the next one comes out. At which point you wouldn’t use the present one as an ironically post-modern door stop.
But my copy of The Prince will be wowing me to my dying day, and I confidently predict that it (and some other certain tomes on my shelves) will cause friction between the beneficiaries of my will. Applications to be a beneficiary of my will, by the way, are to be tendered by email only.
So – I hope we can agree that the Kindle is dispensed with: it’s an ugly, pitiful object, and the fact that its creators and backers have probably been ritually disembowelling themselves at the rate of two an hour since the iPad was introduced to the world is no good reason to get sentimental about it.
And you see the problem with the iPad from an aesthetic point of view also, don’t you? There’s going to be version 2.0 pretty soon, then 3.0, and then a really, really good-looking one. Which will be the really good-looking one, until the next one comes along.
Meanwhile, my copy of The Prince…
So much for enduring aesthetics.
Well – yes. One of the most arresting thoughts I’ve ever heard was so memorable that I’ve long since forgotten who said it, when they said it, or even in what medium they said it. But no matter. It went like this:
‘The codex is the most perfect piece of technology ever invented by man.’
Now, let’s talk nerdy to each other just for a moment, to make sure we know what we’re talking about here: a ‘codex’ is a manuscript bound as a book (front cover, back cover, pages in between: as opposed to a scroll, say) and ‘technology’ is derived from the Ancient Greek words for ‘craft’ (τέχνη: téchnē) and ‘the study of’ (λογία: logia). So anything relating to the craft or study of making something, and the thing that is made – be it a book or a piece of computer hardware – can properly be called technology.
And now we can ask ourselves: what makes a piece of technology imperfect?
A good starting point here is that it doesn’t work. So if it has a battery, there will inevitably (and indeed frequently) be times when it doesn’t work, not to mention a time when it won’t work at all without a new battery. And if it’s a piece of computer hardware, then it’s vulnerable to the thousand unnatural shocks that such things are heir to, and therefore will spend a hefty proportion of its time not working, or not working in the way you want it to.
A perfect piece of technology, by definition then, works all the time.
You can drop a book in the bath and it’s usable pretty much at once, and certainly usable once it’s dry. Not so your iPad or Kindle. If a book falls apart, you only need sticky-tape and patience to patch it up. When you drop a piece of computer hardware you generally need someone else even to tell you it’s irreparable.
Books don’t crash. They don’t depend on WiFi coverage, they don’t need 3G connectivity. And they don’t ever, ever tell you they’re ‘Not Responding’: which is to say that they don’t run Windows.
All you need for books to work perfectly is sight and light. If you can’t see, there’s Braille. If you can see but it’s dark there are light bulbs, torches, candles and (I’m so sick of having to tell people this) you can even render the fat of a loved one into a bowl carved from their skull and use a strip of their clothing as a crude wick in order to make a lamp.
I quoted this little nugget of Douglas Adams in an earlier post, but it bears repeating:
‘We notice things that don’t work. We don’t notice things that do. We notice computers, we don’t notice pennies. We notice e-book readers, we don’t notice books.’
Perfect technology is the kind we don’t notice.
Books aren’t particularly portable – carrying 2,000 of them all at once requires the sort of physique that isn’t generally exhibited by any literate person. Books take up a lot of space, they’re flammable, they’re a pain in the arse to move from house to house and your less scrupulous friends will tend to steal them indiscriminately. Also, if you’ve got as many as I have, you need to keep them alphabetised in several sections so that you can find them – and then when you find ‘Freud’ under F (in philosophy, psychology and science) he tells you that the fact that you have your books alphabetised means that when you were potty-trained your parents drove the idea home with an umpire’s whistle and a riding crop.
My idea of a really nice room is one that’s lined with books. A Kindle- or an iPad-dominated world is one in which Ive’s minimalism has been taken to a truly mad conclusion: a bare room containing a table on which rests a tablet computer loaded with thousands of books that could and should be gracing the walls instead.
And that, so far as I’m concerned, is a reality that is neither beautiful, nor technologically perfect. The simultaneous existence of books and e-book readers does not of course preclude the possibility of owning both: but I know what I’ll have around me, and exclusively.
I’ll take my books every time, thanks.