It was the First World War that made me realize the limitations of present day e-readers. I had loaded Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace onto my Kindle before I went to Brussels for Christmas. Just the place to read about the causes of that war, I thought. Of course, the season and my brother’s open house policy prevented such serious reading. I was lucky to sneak in two John Grishams. The Michael Connelly, the Lee Child and the Margaret MacMillan had to wait until my return. I got through the first two of those fast enough and once I had read the new Ian Rankin and Louise Penny, I started some serious reading about the early twentieth century.
Immediately I knew I was in trouble.I had to read much more slowly. There was a large cast of characters, which I couldn’t keep track of. Who exactly was the “doomed Fredrich Wilhelm”? I knew MacMillan had told me already, butI couldn’t just look in the index without losing my place – at least not on my aging Kindle. I couldn’t flip back until the name jumped out at me. Finally, I went on-line and found out he was the father of Kaiser Wilhelm II who died less than a year after ascending the throne. Bad luck since he was liberal and pro-British unlike his Prussian-loving son. Fredrich was just the first of many puzzles. Plus the pictures were weird. Their descriptions turned up on the next page and I had to keep flipping back and forth, counting group photos, for example, to see which was Edward IV and which Tzar Nicholas. Turned out being cousins, they were all but identical. And the maps made me crazy.
So after yet another doctor appointment, I rewarded myself by stopping at one of our few remaining bookstores, a giant outfit called Chapters/Indigo, I forked over almost $40 for a hard copy, hard-covered and complete with dust cover. (The e-copy had cost about $15.) As I waited to pay for it, I chatted with the woman behind me and we agreed -you can’t read a serious book on an e-reader.
I try to indicate in my book reviews whether I read the book on my Kindle. I see that I have done that for a Lee Child novel, a Jo Nesbo, and a Ruth Rendall. Even so, I remember realizing that I had loaned the other Jo Nesbo books to a friend when I wrote the post on The Police. I was thrown back on the internet for forgotten details. When I wrote about Kate Atkinson’s books, I actually went out and bought a hard copy of Behind the Scenes at the Museum when the on-line search didn’t work. Besides I couldn’t do without that book on my shelf.
What about the argument that a real reader wants to have a real book in hand for its sheer tactility. Well sure, but is that practical at a certain point? I am no longer a book collector. Once I had several thousand books, which required their own room and left barely enough space for a table and chair. It was twenty years ago, but I was able to hop on that earlier real estate meltdown and lose my house. The solution was to move in with my sister Georgia and while I would have a den of my own, I would have to downsize my library. I made several trips to a second hand book dealer. I didn’t get paid. In fact I would have paid him to find new homes for my beloveds. After that, I weeded as I went. Each book had to pass a stringent test in order to stick around: was I likely to use it as a reference or to want to reread it. Otherwise, it was off to a charity book sale. True, every so often, I discover I have exiled a book that I desperately need RIGHT NOW.
The Kindle is good for urgent book needs. You want a book and as often as not, you can download it in a few minutes. John Le Carré books were the exception last time I looked. Another great advantage of the e-reader is that it saves on luggage. Years ago when we travelled in Europe for the summer, our cases were so heavy with books that we spent a lot of time in laundromats. This year, I kept under the one bag, 23 kilo rule by taking my Kindle.
And e-readers are getting better. Georgia’s iPad is easier to read than my old e-reader, brighter, whiter, more like paper. Previously, she needed a little attachable lamp to read her old e-reader in the dark.
No doubt, it will soon be possible to search a downloaded e-book the way you can now search a document for a name. Perhaps it is already and I just don’t know it. What would be most helpful is a meaningful way of keeping track of page numbers. Knowing that I am at 85% or locations 1975-82 of Christopher Hitchen’s Thomas Jefferson, doesn’t work for me.
Pending these improvements, I will buy hard copies of difficult books.