Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Where Will You Read This?

If you're reading this, then I know one thing for certain. You can read. Well done you, go to the top of the class. I'm guessing you may well be a fan of reading things in a book as well. Cool, me too. Let's be best friends! Wait, what? You read your book on some kind of freakish electronic device? One most likely powered by magic? Witchcraft! Burn the vile devil spawn before it spreads its black magic among us!


So, two things happened to me last week which, while both things I've done before, taken together made me start to think about reading, and the way that how we actually read is changing. I upgraded my phone, and I bought a graphic novel. The phone upgrade came first, and despite me spending almost every waking second decrying it since it was released all that time ago, I finally succumbed and got an iphone. My conversion from iphone hater to someone who now can't get by without one happened scarily quickly. I was starting to see the draw of it beforehand, in fairness, but it wasn't until I got my hands on the thing that my indoctrination was complete. I was downloading apps that very night, including (and this will come as a surprise to no one) both the Marvel Comics and IDW Comics apps. These apps basically let you read comics on your phone. Both are free to download, and feature a number of comics on them which can also be read for free. You can then purchase more comics to download and read, most of which seem to be priced at around £1.19. Given that simply buying a normal comic will cost you close to the £3 mark these days, that's a pretty good deal.

The graphic novel I bought was volume seventeen of Ultimate Spider-Man, which reprints The Clone Saga, an eight issue story arc which ran through the title a few years ago. I had read the original comics when they came out, but reading them again in one sitting like this, I realised, and not for the first time, how much more satisfying it is to read a story arc in one go, rather than in eight monthly chunks. It just
seems to flow better, and you catch some of the more subtle touches and references that you may have missed. A small panel in the first issue that may reference something in the eighth is easy to forget over an eight month period.

More often than not these days, once I've read a comic, I'll sell it on. If it was part of a storyline I enjoyed and may want to read again, I'll end up buying the trade to do so. The idea that I could instead
download the comics onto a device, where they would be stored to be read whenever I wanted, and for much less money, is something I can get behind. The only thing stopping me from doing so in fact, is the screen on the iphone. Not that it's a bad screen, far from it. Things tend to look pretty good on it. But it is a bit small to be constantly reading comics on.

But, oh wait, there's the fancy ipad device now, onto which you can download the very same apps. Now that's a tempting prospect, and suddenly, the ipad doesn't look quite so ridiculous to me. Download six or seven comics onto it and read the whole storyline at once. Don't have to worry about those pesky storage issues either, since the comics are all stored on the magic device.

But I can't ever see myself using the ipad, or any other device, to read a novel. Ask some people (often crazy ones), and they'll tell you that the printed page is obsolete now. There are plenty out there these
days who download a book onto their ipad, or their kindle, or their zune, or their miracleread3000, or whatever, and read it on the bright shiny screen. Fine, fair enough, if that's what you want to do, but it
just doesn't work for me. When it comes to reading a book, the tactile sensation you get from actually holding it and turning the pages is part of the experience. Somehow, the act of doing so helps stimulate my imagination, and almost as much a part of the experience as reading the actual words. It's different with comics. Being a visual medium, there's not quite so much left to your imagination (not to say there's nothing left to it, far from it). The pictures are a huge part of the storytelling, and being able to see these on a shiny screen where you can zoom in and out to your hearts content is a good thing.

The same isn't true of a novel, or a biography, or a collection of poems, or whatever you want to read. A screen you can zoom in on isn't going to make the words on the page look any better (mostly. More on
this in a moment). In fact, if you ask me, they generally look better on paper. There's just something colder, more sterile, about reading them on a screen. I'm not saying that these e-readers are a bad thing. Far from it. For those whose eye sight isn't the best, and requires that they read with a magnifying glass or something else along similar lines, then yes, a screen which can make the words bigger is probably appealing. Likewise, there's the space issues. A large collection of books, while looking pretty good (and I don't mean in a poncy "my books make me look intelligent" way, because I hate those people, I just think a few shelves of books on a wall looks good), does tend to take up a lot of room. An e-reader, with the same number of books downloaded to it, still only takes up as much room as one e-reader.

I can't help but think that within the next ten or fifteen years, maybe less, maybe more, books are going to start going the same way as vinyl did when CD's turned up. They'll still be available, but it will really only be collectors who buy them. You'll never get rid of the book completely. It's been around for much too long to just up and disappear like that, and there'll always be people like me who would rather read a book than scroll down a screen, but books may end up being nothing more than a niche item or a curiosity for most. That's a shame. Far as I'm aware, if a book's on your e-reader, you can't lend it to a friend to show them exactly what it was about it that you loved so much when you read it, or swap it with other, like-minded readers for a different book you might like. You also can't get the author to sign it, were you so inclined, and you can't set fire to it if it turns out to be not just offensive, but proper Twilight awful.

At the end of the day, being able to read books electronically (or magically, as I like to call it) is a good thing. It may get more kids reading, and you can't knock that, and there's no denying it does have its advantages. But I will point out just one more thing. When we go on holiday together, I won't have to turn my book off in case it causes the plane to crash on take off.

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