In the 1998 movie “You’ve got Mail“, it was Meg Ryan’s round-the-corner book store that got elbowed out by a mega book store not unlike Borders. Fast forward about a decade later, the economic landscape has changed so much that even an infallible-looking hypermart-size book store can go under. Perhaps the books and publishing market is just too complex. I’m not sad about Borders at Wheelock Place closing down, simply because there are other book haunts in Singapore that I like more. But it is regrettable that so-called physical books are perceived to be less appealing than e-books so much so that printed book shops are struggling with lagging demand.
Once, before a long trip, I downloaded the Lord of the Rings trilogy on to a large-screen smart phone. Although it saved me the hassle of lugging a 3-in-1 door-stop around, reading off a screen is not quite like leafing through the pages of a book: the sensory touch of pulp, the careful avoidance of making dog-ears:- I even “undo” dog-ears found on books borrowed from the library – a public service award, anyone? On the e-book, the screen didn’t even blink once when I “flipped” a page with a careless brush of a finger.
Maybe I haven’t quite jumped on to – at the risk of sounding judgemental – the craze of the e-book bandwagon. Part of me thinks that the preference is highly-linked to the ingenious likes of Kindle and iPad that epitomise the chic and cool factor of electronic accessories.
These gadgets are pretty. But is reading an e-book so much cooler?
When I see people reading a book (gradually becoming a seldom occurrence) – whether on the train, bus or at a cafe – curiosity surges. In stealing a glimpse at the book cover, I wonder: is it a title or author I know? Is the person interested in the book? Why this particular book? The book cover conjures up an image – even if hazy and, definitely unproven – of the reader. Surely a reader must have ever been on the receiving end of conversations starting with the most basic and innocuous “What book are you reading?”
The proverbial book cover provides literally, a cover, to start a conversation.
But less so for an e-book, enveloped in the uniformed gadgetry casing called the “e-reader”. With increased sophistication by electronics manufacturers, an “e-reader” user could be doing anything – playing games, watching videos, surfing the net or reading an e-book. The curious bystander won’t be able to figure out unless he cranes his neck and be overtly blatant (which also doesn’t help much if there is a screen shield). Think: have you ever started a conversation with “What are you surfing for?”
Is it possible that, in addition to displacing mega book stores, the e-book is also displacing the art of the discreet glance and the peripheral interaction of the book reader with his or her surroundings?
This post is not about the pros and cons of the printed book and e-books. Reading habits and book choices are not quite exact science. But in the age of cyber “cool” and individualistic expression of personalities, are we not, by opting for the homogenous e-reader, sacrificing individuality for uniformity? The one big edge that the printed book has over e-books, is in fact its unique (if sometimes, bulky) pulp appeal: the individuality of grip, sensory touch and book cover artwork that is unique to the title, edition and publisher.
2011 Man Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes had this to say:
"Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the ebook, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping”
That’s something to think about for publishers and booksellers. As for me, I might just go get another Ikea bookshelf.