Little more than an hour after departure, I managed to crack my Kindle’s screen — accidentally elbowing it as I climbed up from my reclining position on the upper deck of a rust-bucket ferry. We were steaming towards the southern tip of Lake Malawi. I was bereft — not because I was terribly fond of the Kindle — indeed, in the five years I’d had it, I had barely used it. But I was stuck on board for at least another 24 hours without anything (except for an old British GQ) to read. I kept on toggling the buttons, hoping that Lolita or the Michela Wrong book I’d been so excited to read would miraculously appear. They didn’t — the screen remained a mess.
Bereavement had given way to crabbiness (and slight panic) by the time we reached our destination. I was beached on a desert island (well, almost) with nothing to read. I scrounged the meagre shelf of abandoned paperbacks, attempting Stieg Larsson and then Jeffrey Archer, quickly bored and unimpressed by both of them.
When we got to Blantyre, I made a beeline to its best bookshop, happily poring over titles for hours, weighing up what I should read on the bus back to Johannesburg. In the end, I managed to narrow my choice to two books (White Mischief and Dead Aid, if you must know), forking out a hefty premium for both, but that was okay — I could breathe again: I had something to read.
It’s taken me a whole year to replace my Kindle. To be fair, one of the reasons why I haven’t missed it very much is because publishers are always sending me new hard-copy books to write about. But, more than that, I also far prefer reading ink on paper.
One of The Guardian’s journalists compares reading your favourite novel on e-book to sucking vintage wine through a straw. I couldn’t agree more. The act of reading a physical book exudes a magic that an e-reader simply cannot recreate.
I love its tactile qualities, and how each has a slightly different smell. Then there’s the comforting heft of the thing in your lap, the quiet satisfaction of turning a page, of shutting it with a bookmark in place when you’re done for the night. Printed books aren’t indestructible, but they’re pretty resilient. If you drop one (or elbow it like I did), it’s likely to be unscathed. It might even survive a brief encounter with a pool if you put it in the sun immediately afterwards. To function, they’re not reliant on batteries that can go flat. The text is easier to read. And their physicality, the way they take up space, means they can serve as mini (and often beautifully designed) monuments: sitting on your shelf they remind you either of the stories they contain, or of the time when you were reading them.
So why did I get a new Kindle? Because it’s darn useful when travelling to have a single, slim-line object containing lots of titles, as opposed to a stash heavier than Pilgrim’s burden that you have to lug around with you. There is something too to be said for the immediacy with which you can purchase a new title — particularly if it’s one that your local bookshop might not have in stock.
So, for me, how I read is not about either/or: it’s about context. I’ll use the Kindle when I’m on the go, but I’ll always prefer paper. I’m far from being alone in this. Some might think it’s a generational thing: that older people haven’t adapted to newer technologies. They’re wrong: the allure of paper cuts across age groups. Indeed, research by Nielsen shows that 75% of British kids prefer proper books, with 35% going so far as to shun digital ones entirely.
About five years ago, dramatic headlines were heralding the end of paper books. A surge in the sales of e-readers and e-books (and the closure of many
bookshops, including the gargantuan US chain Borders) seemed to bear this out.
Today it’s looking rather different. E-book sales have stagnated. In 2015, sales in the UK shrank 1.6% compared to the previous year — the first drop in seven years (according to the Publishers Association), while print sales rose. In the same year, Waterstones, the major UK book retailer, removed e-readers from most of its stores (after its MD, James Daunt, claimed they were “getting virtually no sales”), making way for more physical books.
In the US, where e-books take up less than 18% of the trade book market, data from the Association of American Publishers shows the drop has been even more pronounced, with 2015 sales declining 11.3% compared to 2014.
Paperback revenues, on the other hand, rose from $5.09-billion in 2014 to $5.23-billion in 2015, while hardback sales were up a healthy 8.3%. While local publishers continue to face challenging times, internationally things are bullish. Penguin Random House recently more than doubled the size of its main US storage facilities, investing $100-million in warehousing and swifter distribution
“People talked about the demise of physical books as if it was only a matter of time, but even 50 to 100 years from now, print will be a big chunk of our business,” Markus Dohle, the publishing behemoth’s CEO, told the New York Times in 2015. For my fellow lovers of the printed word, that’s excellent news.