I may be a (sometimes) bespectacled, cardigan-wearing, mechanical-pencil-wielding book editor, but, believe it or not, I am all for e-books and the digital publishing revolution. E and P books can live together in a harmonious universe of content and stories. But there’s one thing which bothers me: if the majority of our reading material ends up on a device, the same little machine which you may do many other technological communicatory activities on, how will we know what people are reading?
This thought has been troubling me of late. How will you spot a like-minded book lover on a train or in a cafe? How will the book-voyeur continue to get their kicks (you know, the ‘ooh what are they reading?’ thought you have when you spy a flashy foiled cover in someone’s hand)? How will that ever-trusty conversation starter—’What are you reading?’—continue to feature in our conversational, social and intellectual lives?
I have met quite a few people through the simple enquiry of what I was—or they were—reading. One of my frighteners with ‘e-readers’ is that we will lose that connection.
Have you ever been sitting next to someone using a laptop, ipad, whatever and leaned over and said ‘Oh, what are you doing on your electronic personal device?’ I bet you haven’t. It’d be considered rude because they could be doing so many things: emailing, their banking, work, watching inappropriate films… Maybe this will change as we all start carrying around thin rectangles of plastic and microchips as our only accoutrement. Maybe we will just start leaning over someone’s shoulder, point at their scratch-resistant screen and say: ‘Whatcha doing on your e-thingy there?’
After a crude finger-count I realised that on a 2009 trip to Canada I would have missed out on at least eight conversations—nice, pleasant, interesting, soul-reviving conversations, three of which were with handsome men—because I’d had a book with me and it was the ice-breaker for strangers to ‘meet’ over. If I hadn’t been carrying my copy of Blood Meridian
around with me in hostel kitchens and common rooms (or more like holding it close to my beating heart
and never wanting to be more than a few centimetres away from it), I would have missed out on three of those conversations, I wouldn’t have made a new friend nor, seeing as we’re sharing, been able to email my friends and tell them I’d been wandering around Montreal with a delightful Frenchman. Tragedies all round.
My travel stories aside, I still say bring on the ‘E’ but can a manufacturer come up with some kind of back-projection which users can switch on to show those of us book-curious folk what others are reading on the way to work or while sipping their macchiato? How else will we know that four people on the 8.15 to Central Station are nose-deep in the new Bill Bryson? How else will us bookish types get to meet our like-minded book-loving souls?