My dad used to say to people that I had a reading problem like some people have a drinking problem. He would probably still say that, except that he is a couple of hundred miles too far away to see how much I read.
Reading is my thing. It’s what I do. I devour books, sufficiently speedily that even bibliophile friends will comment with amazement that I’ve gone through 200 pages in three hours. Generally I have about four different books on the go at the same time – an old favourite that I dip into when I feel like a bit of light reading, a library book I picked off the shelf because I liked the cover, a paperback I found on my mum’s bookshelf, and, these days, usually an out-of-copyright classic which I’ve downloaded onto my Kindle.
Different circumstances call for different books. If I’m wandering through the house, doing little jobs that don’t take much concentration (or, if no responsible adults are watching, doing big jobs that do take concentration but I can just about manage with one hand) or waiting for my abysmally slow internet to load, I’ll have something from the first or third category. Something light that I know well enough to skim through. When I’m in bed but not yet asleep, I’ll either tramp through six chapters of my library book until I can’t keep my eyes open or else read my way through one of my Kindle books until the progress bar has lengthened at least an inch. The Kindle is great for travelling too: it fits into the middle pocket of my bag and weighs almost nothing, and yet it contains dozens of books. Even after owning it for nearly six months I have only read about half of the books I have downloaded onto it. Which means that I’ve always got something new to read.
eReaders are divisive. They’re being blamed for the demise of the bookshop and the library, and I’ve heard people say that they miss the physical feeling of paper and the opportunity to make notes and highlight passages. For me, the physical feeling of a Kindle is much better than a book – when you’re reading with one hand whilst frying onions or writing an email or ironing or any of the other semi-dangerous tasks I like to juggle, it’s far easier to hold a flat object than something that is hinged in the middle and desperate to close itself the second you try to turn a page. And I was brought up to revere books, to the point that annotating my copy of King Lear in A level English was physically painful, and I couldn’t even bring myself to write in A Thousand Acres (somehow the presence of academic footnotes in the Shakespeare made it slightly more acceptable to scribble in pencil).
So the Kindle’s highlight feature is incredibly useful. I’m still making my way through Middlemarch, and highlighting phrases which I think are profound, amusing or enlightening. If I want to go back to any of them, I just go to the Bookmarks and Notes menu. Paper books don’t come with this useful feature.
As for the demise of libraries and bookshops, I’m not convinced that the Kindle is the one responsible. eReaders are pretty new, and certainly can’t be blamed for the cut in local council budgets which is fuelling the closure of libraries. Amazon and online shopping generally might be the reason that bookshops are struggling, but I suspect that what is really happening is the shape of bookshops is simply adapting to the times. After all, it’s what happens – no form of shop in existence has remained true to its retail roots. Society is all about streamlining and efficiency these days, and bricks and mortar shops aren’t as streamlined and efficient as e-vending and virtual books.
It would be a pity to lose them, though. I like bookshops, and I love libraries. Whenever I’m stuck in town for three hours until the next bus, I end up in the library. On Thursdays, when the library is closed, I don’t even go into town because I know I’ll be at a loose end for most of the day. But our library isn’t just about shelves and shelves of books. There’s a little coffee machine and some comfy chairs where schoolkids sometimes come and chat, and where I often go to sit and nurse the cheapest cup of hot chocolate in town (30p – but 10p for a cup of cold water, which is why I carry a water bottle). There are computers which library card holders can use – and a lot of people do use them, either because they don’t have internet access at home, or because they happened to be in the vicinity and remembered an important email.
Our library also has an extensive local history section with display cabinets, workshops, and lots and lots of records. There’s a reading group which has been running for years, and a new collaboration with the recently-opened cafe/bookshop on the other side of town which often throws poetry competitions and evenings with local authors. There’s a large and impressive children’s section where they hold parent and child groups, reading challenges and sing-a-longs for the junior members.
I don’t think my Kindle has made me lose my love of books. On the contrary, it has made reading such a habit that I’m more likely to pick up a book if there’s one around. I’ve discovered a love for authors I would never have considered reading before – my choices were much more cautious, limited by cost and physical space or weight. I’ve also struck up conversations with total strangers about the book I am reading, or the Kindle in general, and last week I had a group of children clustered around me being introduced to George Eliot because I happened to be reading and they spotted me. I doubt that would have happened with a paper book.