The e-reader experience

2012-01-18 00:00

LAST September, I succumbed. ­Always a vociferous fan of paper and ink, of the seductive charm of books new and old, and living in a house on the verge of being taken over by the printed word, I bought myself a Kindle. One friend immediately called me a traitor: enthusiasm was greater the younger the people I talked to. I began to worry that this was the reading equivalent of mutton dressed as lamb.

At the beginning, as with every bit of electronic kit I’ve ever owned, I was terrified. This little grey slab was going to defeat me, or worse, hook me in and then suddenly go blank, taking my e-library with it ­into the black hole that swallows ­e-mails and carefully saved documents.

The first time I went somewhere with my Kindle for company, I took a real book as backup, just in case. It was like doing sums on my fingers because I don’t trust the calculator to get it right.

But now I’m a committed Kindle user. And I agree with the pundits — this is going to change the publishing industry, though it’s still not entirely clear how. Some say it will kill traditional publishing, others think it will save it. I can’t see the proper book (note: I’m not so hooked on e-ink that I think what I’m ­reading on my Kindle is a proper book) vanishing any time soon, and there are plenty of things I will only ever want in printed-paper form. But the e-reader has a place. And as for the prophets of doom — when Allen Lane first started Penguin Books in 1934, to give readers a cheaper, more convenient kind of good-quality book to read, which could be bought on railway ­platforms (and that was another innovation), there were those who thought it would spell the end of the traditional hardcover-publishing industry. It certainly changed it, but it’s still there.

Obviously, e-readers score highly for convenience. Five days in the Berg over Christmas would ­normally have seen me packing a solid pile of reading matter — and hoping for more under the tree. Thank ­goodness, the under-the-tree ones were there, but all I took with me was my precious Kindle in its ­little purple pouch, smaller than the ­average ­paperback.

On it were a couple of thrillers for when I ­needed to chill, three good solid ­novels I had been saving up, an ­autobiography, a bit of history and some classics I have been meaning to get around to for ­several decades.

I didn’t read them all, and the classics are still waiting — Christmas after all is a time to be sociable, and I also had to break to eat (often and a lot) and sleep, but even I didn’t think I was going to run out of reading matter.

And then comes the matter of cost. The classics — in fact, anything out of copyright and available in ­e-format — can usually be found for free. There is a wonderful site called Project Gutenberg, with an extra­ordinary collection of free e-books, most of which seem pretty good quality.

Then there are other sites which have endless lists of vanity press stuff, self-published soft porn and the like at no charge. With some of them, I reckon you are going to get exactly what you’ve paid for, but never mind. Even Amazon, although a bit grudgingly, have free e-books on their site.

When it comes to newly published books, the kind of things that appear as Trade paperbacks and cost well over R200 in bookshops, down­loaded onto a Kindle in a matter of 30 seconds (and on your credit card in another 30) they cost about $11,99 (R97) on average. As they say — do the maths. It’s a big, big saving.

Curling up with a Kindle doesn’t seem quite as cosy as curling up with either a new book or an old favourite: the sheer tactile pleasure of paper is missing and if, like me, you like to flip through the pages to find out whodunit in a mystery ­novel, that’s more complicated. But often in South Africa, this is the only way of sourcing books that are not going to have a big enough local sale to make it worth importing them.

Order books from overseas, and not only do you have to wait but the post office will smack you for duty, making things even more expensive. And, vitally for bookaholics like me, if you want to get your hands on a book right now, this minute, an ­e-book arrives in seconds and you don’t even have to get out of your chair.

My Kindle will never become my main source of reading. Nothing is going to replace the pleasure of browsing in bookshops, or the feel and smell of a real book. But it has a place, no doubt about that. I’m hooked.

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