Hi everyone. Sorry I'm a little late … er, a day late. Something urgent came up, and then there was a traffic jam and, well, you know how it is. I hope you weren't too uncomfortable here overnight. And look! I brought eclairs!
Anyway. Let's pretend for a moment that it's Sunday, and get down to business.
Every December, my Christmas shopping always includes several books. Many of my family and friends like to read, and in the past I used to speculatively pick books that were in the right sort of genre for the recipient and that I fancied reading myself (because it's always good to have something you can pick up in idle moments when you're staying at someone else's house).
But not any more.
The last couple of years, I've been much more specific with my gift-buying. I've been buying books for people that I already own myself. That never would have happened in the past, because if I owned the book then I'd just lend it to whoever I thought would enjoy it. The difference now is, I do a lot of my reading on Kindle.* And any books I really love, I buy again in printed form to give to people as gifts. The authors I admire most are essentially selling me their work twice.
Now, you may say that this is hardly an indication of a thriving book market. All I'm doing is limiting the number of different authors who benefit from my custom, by buying my friends books I already know rather than books I'm unfamiliar with. But here's the thing: since I was given my Kindle, I've been buying way, way more books than I used to. Because ebooks are wonderful things. They don't take up any space (which until I get my own library is a pretty big selling point). They're instant – it only has to cross my mind that I fancy a particular type of book and there it is, without me even having to get up from my armchair. They're cheaper to produce, and therefore often cheaper to buy. And I can carry hundreds of them around with me.
So how does the printed book fit into this idyllic picture? I hear you cry. You're meant to be talking about the harmonious relationship between books and ebooks, and instead you've launched into a hymn of praise for the Kindle. Stick to the topic, dammit.
Well, yes. I won't deny that I love my Kindle. But it has its limitations. I miss the beauty of a well-designed cover, which even on a colour ebook reader is never quite the same as the real thing. I miss holding a book in my hands and knowing just from the feel how far I am through it. I miss the way you can walk into a person's house and browse their bookcases and discover shared joys and hidden treasures. And yet … and yet I don't miss those things. Because I still buy printed books, and not just as gifts. My favourite author collections are added to on a regular basis. I wander into bookshops if I happen to be passing, then re-emerge an hour or so later with a new find or a second-hand bargain. My overloaded shelves sag ever lower with the growing weight of words. To me, a house isn't a home unless its walls are lined with coloured spines.
See, the point is that books and ebooks fulfil different purposes in life. Ebooks are for experimenting, for discovering unfamiliar genres, for convenience and the quick fix. Books are for giving, for sharing, for revisiting favourite passages that have been read so often that the spine has a permanent crease at that location – for loving, in a way that it's impossible to love an ebook. The two of them together make my reading life richer and fuller than either did alone. And so I can't help feeling that despite the predictions of doom in certain quarters, the outlook is a bright one. Sales of books may fall a little, sales of ebooks may rise, but there is still a need for both. More importantly, the huge variety of ways that it's possible to read now make it easier than ever for people to pick up a book, whether literally or electronically, and get lost in it – which can only be a good thing.
* Other ebook readers are available, and all that.