Thursday 6 December 2018

On e-reading

I listened to a rather hopeful piece on Radio 4 recently (I spend far too much time listening to Radio 4) about how consumers may be falling out of love with online retailers and returning to actual shops, and how Internet giants are beginning to set up bricks-and-mortar outlets in order to give shoppers the more tangible, human experience they apparently crave.

It set me thinking about e-books and e-reading. I was, as in most things, a late adopter. I bought a device in about 2014 because I wanted to read Clarissa. I'm like that. And I managed it. I simply never could have read the only print edition of Richardson's eighteenth-century masterwork available, the biggest Penguin ever. From then on, I was a convert. I read James on my Kindle, I read Dickens, I read Anita Brookner. And I found myself reading more smoothly and quickly - not least because I was able to adjust for my own comfort the size and spacing of the text. I suspect in myself a mild undiagnosed dyslexia.

But I also read more shallowly. I found I couldn't remember what I had read. I glided; I no longer plunged.

There are practical considerations. I like the search facility on e-readers; I like being able to highlight passages. But I don't like not always having a feel for the shape of a book. In a print edition, if I'm not quite enjoying it but reading it because it's worth reading and 'good for me' (this goes for almost all of my reading, truth to tell), I'm always doing things like flicking forward and finding out how much of a chapter remains or rereading an earlier passage to remind myself who a certain character is. You can't do any of that so easily with an e-reader.

A short while ago someone gave me several lovely 1990s World's Classics editions of Scott. (I'm a growing fan of Scott and a big fan of those particular liveries.) The print is small and the pages are yellowing, and I had Scott on my Kindle so I turned to that. But I could make little headway. Real books had reclaimed me at last. What's more, I found myself a different, better reader - a retrained reader almost.

I shall still keep my Kindle for vacations, for lounging in foreign climes, sipping a gin and tonic and darting promiscuously between a piece of James travel writing, a Shakespeare play, and an essay by Sebald. But at home, when the long dark autumn and winter evenings come, one looks for consolations more homely, more timeworn.


  1. One additional thing I have learned to appreciate about public domain electronic texts is that I can sometimes read, or at least see, the original edition, including illustrations and advertisements and so on. I always prefer a real book if available, but especially for century-old volumes of poetry, which have lots of white space on the page, the e-book can be a positive pleasure.

    That Penguin Clarissa is a piece of madness, or perhaps a psychology experiment. Why not a three-volume set, or for that book an eight-volume set?

  2. My grail is the World's Classics paperback of Sir Charles Grandison. I once had it. Now it's only available for hundreds of pounds.


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