In the fourth instalment of her multi-part review of Tim Parks’ essay collection Where I’m Reading From. The Changing World of Books, Gesa Stedman disagrees with the author again. E-books, she thinks, may be for grown-ups, but that doesn’t make them any more appealing.
Tim Parks cannot really understand the nostalgia for the printed book. In his opinion, the practicalitiesof e-books outdo physical books by far. You can read them anywhere, they weigh little which means you have an enormous number of books available to you when you travel or are otherwise unable to transport physical books, and you don’t have to contend with bad paper and embarrassing pulpy covers.
He has a point, of course – Anglo-American books are often made of very cheap paper – so cheap that only by simply reading them you leave smudges on the page and come away with grimy fingers. Book covers are a question of taste, of course, but it can be embarrassing to find you are reading a gold-embossed, black and red book, even though a feminist classic is hiding behind its loud cover. But shouldn’t one try to find a different cover artist and marketing department if one is unhappy with tasteless covers as a writer? Does the alternative have to be an e-book? If one looks to other literary traditions, e.g. in France and Germany, one will find that both the quality of the paper and the cover art for literary fiction is high. No smudges, no embarrassing misappropriations when seen to be reading on the underground. On the contrary – some books look so stylish, you might never know what banal content you may find inside.
Tim Parks continues to argue for e-books since, in his opinion, one can shed non-essential old habits easily, and then proceeds with a much stronger argument: that literature, in contrast to painting, sculpture, and music requires only the use of the mind. In other words, the material existence of literature is much less relevant than the material aspects of other forms of art. The sequences of words on a page are what counts. The essence of the literary experience, as Parks eloquently states, can best be found in e-books. Therefore, only grown-ups can really profit from them. Your mind needs to engage with the sequence of words the author has chosen. That this sequence then disappears from the screen matches the reading experience and points to the importance of the work of the mind which doesn’t require a physical prop.
I find myself disagreeing – again. Not only because culture-specific bad paper and garish covers don’t say anything much about the physical book as such – in particular in recent years where the bibliophile book has made a come-back and has had considerable impact on the look of all books, not just the specialist kind but on mainstream publishing as well. But more importantly, because the work of the mind cannot be separated from the physical experience of reading. Reading is an art which combines the eyes, the mind, the hands holding the book, the body bending to its task, the nose smelling the paper, the feel of the spine of the book, the ability to fall asleep on top of it, or under it, knowing it will be waiting for you when you wake up, rather than simply glowing electronically and impersonally in the dark. The material book is physically present when used or not in use, its use doesn’t depend on anything other than a bit of light, and most importantly, you can go back to where you were without loosing the page you are currently reading. Annotating books physically also makes a difference, not least because writing by hand makes the brain work differently from typing, as recent research by neuroscientists has shown.
So am I only old-fashioned and nostalgic? Probably. And I can see the uses of e-books and e-devices for professional purposes. But the physical and mental pleasure of reading literature, or of reading, no matter what, cannot, in my opinion, be compared to holding an e-device with the page disappearing as soon as you move the cursor. So this grown-up will continue to cart around boxes of books when on holiday, or commuting, or just everywhere, so as to have the chance of holding a material book in her hands and enjoying its physical presence and all that goes with it.
Tim Parks, Where I’m Reading From. The Changing World of Books, London: Vintage Penguin/Random House 2015 (2014), 255 pp, RRP 9.99 GDP