I’ve finally bitten the bullet: I now have a digital reading device. The latest metal-and-plastic addition to my life has given me a few interesting days (heavenly: bookshop browsing from my bed; hellish: e-store account proliferation and administration). I haven’t had the chance yet to be very reflective about how the e-reader will impact on my reading life, but the other day I had an experience that brought into focus how it might change the conversations I have about books.
A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed the fantastically friendly author Steven Amsterdam (Things We Didn’t See Coming and What the Family Needed) at my home office for the Kill Your Darlings podcast. While I was setting up, his observer’s eyes were darting around with great enthusiasm. ‘I’m just putting it all together. The new Isobelle Carmody book, Miranda July, Zadie Smith essays,’ he said, deftly sketching a personality outline from the books he could see sitting about on shelves and stacked in Jenga-like towers.
Steven’s active curiosity made me see the room, which I’d previously thought relatively ordered and neutral, through his eyes. My office detritus was as telling as a Meyers-Briggs test result: the Carmody-July-Smith combination (female indie reader with with a fantasy bent); a year-old unopened McSweeney’s Issue 36 head (lazy); Stieg Larsson trilogy (tragically behind-the-game mass-market tastes); a dishevelled sheaf of paperwork, thankfully stashed behind the chair he was seated in (bad at filing).
‘Wow, that’s…ha ha,’ I said, trying to stay casual but feeling more exposed by the second. I had become painfully aware that Geoffrey Robertson’s Crimes against Humanity might give the wrong impression (worthy and interesting, but unread – and not even mine). And as for the battered but rarely used Collins Robert French Dictionary – well, that just spoke to all kinds of unholy pretentiousness.
We proceeded to the interview, which was great (it will be online tomorrow). On the way out, Steven laid eyes upon my copy of Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, a book he said hadn’t made a huge impression on him – ‘It’s her non-fiction I take with me.’ I agreed that it wasn’t my favourite of her books, but that I’d appreciated the intensities of certain scenes and characters. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad prompted a short and agreeable exchange of opinions regarding the technique (‘enjoyable’) and subject (‘meh’) of that book.
It occurred to me that I’ll increasingly be having conversations like this online. Of course, we all already flit from blog to Tumblr to bookshop website in search of new books and opinions about them. But many of us now say, ‘Hey, what did you think of this?’ through specialist sites like Goodreads or Shelfari, where users can rate and comment on books. Kobo Pulse, a social reading platform, allows you to share passages you like with friends through social media and check out what people in your networks are reading.
Though these possibilities are exciting, there are a few losses I’ll be mourning. Finding out about someone’s reading tastes by looking at a physical bookshelf is simple, unmediated. It doesn’t matter if my e-reader has run out of batteries, the wi-fi isn’t working or if you and your reading buddy are members of different social networking sites.
And one thing I’ve learned about e-books is that I’m way less interested in whether they endure. I am a strict non-marker of hard-copy books – no marginalia for me. Not so with e-books, which can be highlighted and unhighlighted, dog-eared and undog-eared, pages turned to eternity without any danger of leaf litter. I’ve also discovered that I can delete them without feeling bad. But paper books are different. Even the ones I didn’t enjoy stand to attention like a monument to my diligence and eventual boredom. This means that putting one’s iBooks on show doesn’t afford the same accidental licence to judge that an unhideable wall-to-wall bookcase does.
I also find it a bit sad that my imperfect personal library will henceforth be divided between an Ikea bookshelf and a digital one. (Possible business opportunity: designer e-shelves?) Of course, I can now hide my less-savoury reading habits in my digital device. But insightful conclusions about my personality, like the one Steven made from looking at my wood-and-tacks bookshelves that day, will be based on less complete information, at least while we grow more familiar with digital reading.
And that future familiarity is a certainty. I know that almost all book lovers will adapt to these new avenues for book perving and literary discussion. Similarly, the possibilities that e-readers and their platforms offer for social reading will continue to adapt to what readers want. In ten years, or maybe five, we’ll probably all be directly tickling each others’ synapses when we want to discuss The Golden Bowl or the latest thriller.
Until then, though, I might see what I can do about getting Tyra Banks’ Modelland – as an e-book.
Estelle Tang is the Online Editor for Kill Your Darlings.