Though I am normally a cheerful, laid back sort of person, when I allow myself to think about literary issues that irritate me, a variety of things come to mind.*
However, currently winning by a huge margin is people that claim that they hate e-readers, or worse, that they are destroying literature. I’ve seen this said far too often, from some authors, from serious commentators and from angry people on the internet. See for example: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jan/30/jonathan-franzen-ebooks-values
Now, I have no problem with people who personally prefer to stick to physical books – that’s a perfectly valid opinion. I can see that owners of book shops aren’t keen (though I’d tend to assume that most people who use e-readers had been buying their physical books online for years anyway). What I can’t stand is when people act as though this makes them almost morally superior, or at least a greater lover of literature. People who say things like, “you can’t beat the smell of a book,” or “it’s just not the same when you’re not holding a book in your hand,” as if to imply that you, sitting there with a lump of plastic in your hand, are a philistine who can’t appreciate such rarefied pleasures.
To those people I say, “You’re not a lover of literature, you’re a fetishiser of paper.” When I say that I love books, what I mean is that I love the text contained within them. I love being transported to a different world, or getting a new perspective on the one we live in. I love marvelling at a beautiful piece of perfectly crafted prose, and equally, gasping at a roughly written but breathtaking plot. I love falling in love with characters, falling in hate with characters, cheering characters on or wishing for them to meet a horrible fate.
Whilst I am doing all this, as long as the text is legible, I don’t care how it’s being presented to me – paperback, hardback, e-book or papyrus scroll.
To me, people who talk about the sensual pleasures of a book, and literally mean the physical object rather than the words, are massively missing the point. Yes, a beautiful cover and thick pages can be nice, but they are definitely an extra little treat rather than something central to the enjoyment of the text. Thinking otherwise is like going to a restaurant that serves the most wonderful food and complaining that you don’t like the perfectly functional plates.
Besides, are most modern books really things of such beauty? I wrote my thesis on someone called George Osbaldeston. In a moment of madness/brilliance, I bought myself, at auction, an original copy of his autobiography (seemingly the enthusiasm of publishers for minor celebrities that I complain of below goes back several centuries). There aren’t many copies in existence. It’s bigger than my computer monitor. The pages are ragged and must, I think, have originally had to be cut open with a knife. It has pride of place on my coffee table. The day it arrived in the post (via a slightly disgruntled postman) I basically hugged it to my chest. Visitors can never resist looking inside.
Now, if every book was like that, I could sort of see the doubters’ point. But let’s face it, the vast majority of physical books that I, and I suspect most people, have ever read are old tatty paperbacks – perfectly serviceable, but hardly works of art. Even modern hardbacks, with a few exceptions, aren’t really something you want to coo over and proudly display on a shelf.
I genuinely think that e-readers are doing marvels for increasing people’s exposure to literature. I’ve definitely bought more books since I’ve owned one, partly because they’re cheaper, partly because it’s so easy – click a button and start reading ten seconds later. Another unsung joy of e-readers is the ability to download classical texts for free. I’ve downloaded and read a variety of out of copyright books that I’ve always sort of meant to read but would never have made the effort to go out to a shop and hand over money for. And of course, ereaders make it a million times easier for self-published authors (alas, good and bad) to get their work out there.
Anyone who truly loves literature should be cheering their existence. That this is far from universally the case is a depressing sign of some people’s terror of change. Remember, love words, not paper.
*For anyone who cares, here’s a brief list of my other complaints:
- Readers who assume that “self-published” is synonymous with “terrible.”
- Writers who help to perpetrate that stereotype by self-publishing badly spelt, unedited rubbish in huge quantities
- Agents/publishers that won’t take a chance on a new author but will give gigantic advances for ghost-written “autobiographies” of minor celebrities in their early twenties who have done nothing but the one thing they are vaguely famous for.
- Reviewers that are so cruel and personal you’d think the author they’re attacking had murdered their entire family rather than written a book that wasn’t quite their cup of tea. It hasn’t happened to me yet, but I know it almost certainly will one day. Reading reviews like this of books I love makes me furious, but even reading them of books I hated upsets me.
- And one last very specific one I’ve seen a lot of recently – Reviewers that state that they don’t like books that are written in the third person. Fine, just dismiss the vast majority of literature.