We had a record month for our company over the summer and as a thank you we were all given Amazon Kindles, (I think most of us would have preferred our first payrise in three years but that’s beside the point) . I wasn’t too displeased though as I’m a pretty avid reader and I had been toying with the idea of asking for one for Christmas. So after playing with it for a little while I can confirm it’s a good bit of kit. It’s about the same size as a standard paperback but a lot lighter so it’s almost easier to read than a real book. Downloading content is no harder than searching the normal Amazon website with the added bonus that you don’t have to wait for the postman and it will certainly be easier to carry on my my upcoming trip to New Zealand than the four or five separate books I would probably take if I didn’t have it.
But therein lies the problem. I’ve got a long list of books I’d like to put on it but for some reason my finger keeps hovering over the ‘Buy’ button. It’s not a question of money, generally the ebooks are a few quid cheaper than their paperback counterparts but something more tangible. I like having a physical book in my hands. I like having shelves full of books to look at and choose from. In bookshops I take great pleasure in standing with my head at an odd angle reading along the spines of books waiting for a title or author to jump out at me and I just don’t get the same satisfaction from scrolling down a screen.
It’s the same with music and films. I had an MP3 player for a long time before I got an iPhone and I’ve had an iPhone since they came out but I have relatively few downloaded albums. I like having piles of CDs on my shelves, being able to touch them and read the sleeve notes, the lyrics and the thankyous. I have no downloaded films at all, preferring to be able to see all of the DVDs and Blu-Rays I have in one go rather than go through a list of file names.
This reluctance to embrace digital content has struck me as a bit strange, especially given that I work in IT. I can see the advantage of on-demand content. You see something, you want it, you get it. Instant gratification for the consumer and easy money for the providers. But something in this system grates on me, you don’t get anything physical out of the transaction, nothing you can put anywhere. We talk about having music collections, DVD collections and, to me anyway, a collection is something you should be able to show off and share with people. It loses something when you break that down to how many terabytes your external hard drive needs to have to hold all your films and music.
The other thing that worries me about digital content is what happens when you lose it? Just recently the laptop that held my iTunes library died and I lost all of my music. Not such a big deal for me as I had a back up and I’ve never got round to transferring all of my CDs so it’s not a huge amount of data but it still took the best part of an afternoon to restore everything to a different computer. If I didn’t have a backup I would have had to re-download everything I’d bought from iTunes and re-rip all my CDs, again not hard but time-consuming. I’m not sure I like the ‘all or nothing’ nature of digital collections, if you lost a walkman you only lost the one tape or CD that was with it, everything else was still safely back at home but if your music computer dies and you don’t have a back up you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you to get everything back. Especially if you were not altogether honest about where you were sourcing your music from…
It’s the same with books. I’ve left a book in a hotel and yes it’s irritating but it was just one book, it was easy to replace. But if I lost my Kindle somwhere that would be a different story, I’d be looking at around £100 to get my book back rather than a tenner. And what if you’re reading your ebooks on an iPad and that slips out of your bag unnoticed?
I’m not against digital content, far from it. I love being able to type a snatch of a lyric I’ve heard in the morning into Google, find the band name, go to somewhere like Spotify or Last.fm and be listening to their stuff in a matter of minutes and then being able to browse through a list of similar artists and discover even more new music. I still go and buy the CD if I like it enough rather than download it there and then though.
I think it might be because I’m from the digital crossover generation. I was 23 when we first got an internet connection at home. A whole 56k of dial-up access! I remember being impressed the first time I saw a billboard for ‘super fast’ 1/2 Meg Broadband and scoffing at the idea that any office could ever be truly ‘paperless’. The idea that you’d never need to hold a paper file in your hands seemed a long way off to me and I could never imagine someone actually preferring looking at a display to get information rather than flick through some pages. But now we have people at university for whom there has always been an internet, for whom information has always been easier to find online than hunting through several different reference books like I used to do. They’re used to looking at screens and displays because that’s the way they’ve always done it. Their music has always been virtual as they probably got given iPods as presents rather than the tapedecks or CD players I got and now you can read documents on handheld devices as easily as if you were reading a piece of paper.
It’s fine, I get it, times move on. I just happen to be stuck between the two. I will use the Kindle the same way I use iTunes and Spotify I suspect, find an author I like by downloading samples or cheap ebooks and then going out to buy the rest of their work in physical form, just so I’ve got something to fill up the two new bookshelves I bought a few months back.
After all, where’s the fun in looking at a shelf with a whirring black box on it?