I was staring at my biggest dilemma of the century.
My bags were packed and I was looking forward to a month-long sojourn to Darjeeling – home, hearth and hikes. I walked over to my bookshelves and wondered which book to carry with me. And then I realised I’d have to carry more than one book to last me through the trip. I’d finished reading Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, the sillage of the book still clung to me, so I decided no Murakami on this trip. How about No Path in Darjeeling is Straight (Parimal Bhattacharya)? I had wanted to be closer home reading this one. And I had Lone Fox Dancing (Ruskin Bond) that I had just received as a gift 🙂
Well, it looked like I had a couple of books to carry. And the weighing scale digital screen had pushed ahead of the intended weight I wanted to carry with me. Now what? A pesky voice said
I won’t deny it. I have been snidely looking at ads for the Kindle. I’m guilty of checking out the price during a promotion, basking in the wonderful ‘ooh, I pay Rs.x less’ feeling that accompanies any sale. And then have gone and bought some more books. But I hadn’t yet settled down to getting an e-reader for myself. I couldn’t. I felt like it was akin to cheating on my books err… with books. Well, there’s a difference you see. I can see, feel, touch & smell my print books. An e-reader? It’s as high on the sensory experience scale as eating a spaghetti Bolognese pill for a meal. No spaghetti strands that evade the tines of the fork, no messy sauce on your shirt and no visceral sigh of satisfaction after a good meal. But yeah, the pill delivers the same meal. Sigh.
I have loved books, always. They were my best friends in school, clutching and rescuing me from the wretches of loneliness and all the crises that come with the journey of the ugly duckling.
And those days, special days like a rainy one, when you linger at your bookshelf, revisiting old books, the memory-keepers and bookmarks of your journey till here. Petrichor mingles with the wistful smell of yellowing pages. And you meet an old friend and pick up from where you last left, effortlessly.
But was I succumbing to the propitiation of my senses and the sentiment evoked by print books? Was I allowing nostalgia to trump convenience?
Well, e-readers are convenient. They can store thousands of books. They are portable, light to carry, no having to wait to visit the physical bookstore (sigh, the last standing bookstore in my vicinity closed down recently) or wait for the online store to deliver. I can get an e-book at the snap of a finger, cheaper too than most of the printed books. And yes, there are thousands of books for free – goodies that have entered the public domain or are at very marginal costs as part of promotional programmes offered by the e-book seller.
So here I am, staring at the biggest dilemma of my life so far. To e-read or not to e-read. I had burrowed myself into a situation that provided the perfect opportunity to face the devil horns-on. My devil?
And so I made a call. And a telephone call. A day later, I had snagged myself a borrowed Kindle! Did your jaw just drop? Yes, I am lucky to have good friends! And this one here was finishing Murakami’s 1Q84, that’s a thick book, and hence he doesn’t need his Kindle for some time. So I bought myself some time, packed the e-reader & left for my trip.
I had borrowed the Kindle Paperwhite. And with it came hundreds of books already downloaded (by my friend) and 2 books I had specifically requested for. (Yes, I did settle this with my friend; we have our ritual of taking care of our accounts.)
At the airport, I take out the Kindle. No illustrated book cover, no colour. It felt joyless and sterile. I put it back and went to my favourite pastime of observing people milling around. And then aha, I saw a curly mop of hair bent over a book, sitting across from me! I craned my neck, twisted it at an angle to have a look at the title. Yes, I see it, I see it! Well, not an author I’d enjoy, but hallelujah, there’s more in our tribe! I heaved a sigh of relief and boarded the plane.
But think of it. A book is a wonderful conversation starter. When I see a person holding a book, it just pleases my occipital. And if it’s a book I have loved, then I’m aglow with feeling kindred spirit vibes. I don’t know if the e-reader will light up my brain. And worse still, I’ve lost the power to seek out my tribesmen.
On my fifth day at home, I found my way into the e-reader. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it’d be, with an uncomplicated User Interface (UI); but it wasn’t as easy as picking up a book.
I was reading before (my) bedtime and my mother hadn’t visited my room for the 3rd time complaining it was late, ‘lights out, to bed!’. Bravo, I could read in the dark with the Kindle’s front-lit display! And I could read in the dark with a mug of hot chocolate in one hand, no accidental spills. Was that a frisson of excitement that escaped me?
I could look up words without having to move away from my reading. And I could highlight words, passages, share them on social media or just make notes (without worrying about leaving scribbling scars on the book). The Kindle syncs one’s Goodreads account and that’s a fine touch.
The Kindle had finally begun to purr with some life. And let’s not be harsh, it definitely was trying hard to seduce me in the absence of my print books.
No doubt an e-reader opens the door to the world’s largest library of books. You would never be stuck with a book you don’t enjoy. I remember train journeys when I was stuck with books which stopped chugging after a while. I force-read through them, half-sleeping & half-wincing.
You don’t have to worry about soiling the pages on an e-reader or dog-ears, which I hate. The first thing after getting back a borrowed book (if I get it back, that is) is smoothen out the dog ears. Only bookmarks for me. Oh, that brings me to a sad thought. Are bookmarks also losing favour, now that the Kindle makes it possible for you to pick up exactly where you left off reading?
Coming back to books that are borrowed – what is the percentage of books that one gets back? I score pretty badly here. I know A, B & C have borrowed books from me, I can’t seem to remember who took which book or I get them mixed up and eventually the books never come home. With an e-reader, no more borrows! (Yes, I’m the only one who gets away with borrowing a Kindle. Ps. wait until the end to figure if I give back the borrowed Kindle and bought my own.)
You can though share books with your spouse or partner (and up to 4 child accounts) on Kindle – but hold your kindling horses – that’s in the rest of the world, ex-India; the Amazon Family Library service isn’t available in India yet (phut phut).
But what about the second-most pleasurable thing in life (after chocolate): the gift of a book? It is a rare wonderful feeling to pass on the pleasure you have derived from reading a book to someone else. Books make the perfect gift and I have always expressed my deep connection with a friend by gifting him/her a book. Alas, gifting an ebook on Kindle seems as colourful and significant a gesture as making an e-payment. So I’m bereft of the perfect gift to give someone, the gift of tangible imagination. I guess it’ll have to be just chocolate from now.
Yet, buying a print book isn’t as time-efficient as buying an e-book. But a print book may have several editions and these come with different cover art as well. I have often bought one edition against another just because of the cover-art.
And when I settle down to read my print book, note how I ‘settle down’. It implies a relaxed state of being. On the Kindle, I don’t think I can settle down, I will just read on it. And I cannot fathom how relaxing curling up on my favourite part of the sofa will be, now with a Kindle. Stare at another screen after more than 9 hours of work behind a screen already during the day?
Albeit the Kindle is light, around 200g. But I do miss the heaviness of a book as it sits in my hands. I love to turn the pages, the paper rustling against my fingers and adding to the read pages that grow heavier to the left.
I once left a book at a café. I had never been to that café earlier, hence I wasn’t a familiar visitor. I went back the next weekend just in case… and they were still holding onto the book for me. I’m not sure if the Kindle would have had the same fate. So books are theft-proof (too!).
My bookshelves that are lined with all the books I ever bought, they have a certain character. They draw people in. There are excited words exchanged upon discussing a book – a language of love, wonder, praise and criticism. In contrast, the Kindle just has lists displayed in e-ink splendour – lists of books on the Amazon wishlist, the Goodreads wishlist and those that are bought. Lifeless lists against breathing living books on the shelf.
Well… I was struggling.
The Kindle was a mighty convenient tool. And yes, I did start out being a self-restrained (veering towards belligerent) non-believer. But did I make it a friend? It stayed the course of the trip with me. I read A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson) on it whilst I was out hiking. (Review of the book will be up soon)
If there’s any day I would consider getting an e-reader, it would be when I start hiking regularly. For when you carry your entire baggage on your back, each milligram, in weight saved, counts.
So I’m back from my trip. And the denouement?
And yes, I returned the borrowed Kindle. I will update this article to let you know if I miss it.
Statistics do state that the UK and US are seeing the resurgence of printed books, with e-book sales teetering. The UK publishing industry had a record-breaking year in 2016* with sales of books and journals up 7% to £4.8Bn, their highest ever. Of this physical book sales went up by 8% but eBook sales dropped for a 2nd year with sales of consumer e-books dropping 17%. In the US unit sales of print books were up 3.3% in 2016, recording the third-straight year of growth according to Nielsen BookScan. And e-reader sales are already dropping YOY** after the high of 40Mn unit sales worldwide in 2012.
In India, e-book readers are just a few years old. Kindle was launched in India in 2013 and Nook and Kobo e-readers followed suit. Young people have been the biggest adopters of e-books in India. Over 65% of the Indian population is under 35 (median age being 27) and India is the world’s fastest-growing smartphone market (300Mn smartphone users) in the world. This is a gigantic base for e-book consumption. Although e-books currently account for less than 10 percent of the topline of publishers in India, this figure is expected to grow to about 25 percent by 2020. This doesn’t mean that e-book reader sales will show a similar growth – as most people read e-books on their phones or tablets, smart devices they already own. And with thousands of e-books available for as low as Rs.9 or for next to nothing (under KindleUnlimited) or for nothing for pirated e-books, India will be busy for the next few years e-reading on smart devices and some e-readers.