A couple of days ago, Indian stand up comedian Vir Das stirred a debate on Twitter when he tweeted “Sometimes I feel like the only reason I go into book stores anymore is to sneakily take photographs of things to buy on my Kindle.” The tweet ignited the old ‘paper vs digital‘ book debate that is waged every time someone utters the ‘K'(indle) word, which once again ended inconclusively, with one side insisting that real books were read only on real paper as the experience was different, and the other saying that reading on the Kindle was actually as convenient, and why on earth had the paper-loving brigade not shown the same affection for papyrus while moving from snail to e-mail?
No, that is not a debate I would like to go into right now. Both sides have their pros and cons, and at the end the medium one wants to read one’s message on is one’s choice entirely – hey, in India, we still have CEOs who insist on their mails being printed out instead of just reading them on an electronic display. Speaking personally, however, I have migrated largely to the Kindle. Yes, I have over three thousand books at home, and still visit book stores and buy the odd paperback. but for the most part, I find myself reading and buying books on the Kindle. And these were the seven reasons that pushed me in its direction.
The human factor
One of the reasons I used to buy books from book stores was the human factor. When I started reading, we used to go to bookstores to not just buy books, but also find out which books one should read – almost every book store owner used to suggest titles based on what he had seen us purchasing or browsing. Bookstores were big, the staff was knowledgeable, and browsing was encouraged. Fast forward to today when book store staff head to a computer every time you ask for a title, seem disinterested (most are students doing a part time job), where books are often kept in sealed plastic packaging on racks (why keep the darned thing there, I wonder!), where very few book stores have actually space for more than a dozen people to stand and read, leave alone sit, and where store owners try to push titles that the publishers tell them are good rather than what you like to read, and you get the idea. I suspect if the book trade had remained as proactive towards its readers and not got obsessed with celebrity events and trying to target institutional buyers, I would still have been reading on paper.
This, for me, is one of the killer features of the Kindle. I get books literally within minutes of their global launch, and without having to go to a bookstore and hoping that the owner has heard of it. I got the new Jobs biography a full week before it came to bookstores in Delhi – it was as simple as selecting the book and downloading it (it took about two minutes). There is also the little matter of the fact that the Kindle bookstore never closes – so I do not have to plan a trip to some part of the city to get to it, pray for parking and finally pray that I get to see something interesting.
A month ago, I went to one of Delhi’s best known bookstores. It was near closing time, but as I was browsing, an employee came and abruptly started switching lights off without any morning. It was amazingly insensitive and rude. When I wrote about the experience on Facebook, I heard nothing from the bookstore itself, but got a message from one of the Amazon team – “shop with us. We never switch off the lights.” Touche’!
As someone who has been lugging hundreds of books all over the country for a few years now, let me tell you that while paper might look and feel awesome, it is rather heavy, takes up space and deteriorates all too easily. I can carry the equivalent of a couple of bookcases on my Kindle easily. If l lose or damage the Kindle, the books remain available to be on the cloud and can be downloaded easily on another device. And in the places where book borrowing is allowed, there is no danger of your book not being returned – you can right it right back on to your device if you wish.
The reading experience
Yes, you read that right. I too had found reading on an e-paper display a bit odd initially, and had bristled when an Amazon spokesperson described it as trying to replicate the experience of reading on paper. But within a few weeks, I was seeing its plus points. I could tweak font sizes (you have no idea how important that can be), highlight content without ruining a book, share notes without sticking Post Its on pages, find out the meaning of words without getting a dictionary, and when the Paperwhite came along, could read in the darkness. The font size changing and read in the dark bits are killer features, believe you me. And so is the fact that I can read a book as massive and bulky as Isaacson’s tome on Jobs or the new edition of Wisden without worrying about it overbalancing or even taking up luggage space on my travels.
The Kindle book store
The Kindle would have been pretty useless without its book store for someone like me. Nope, I am not the type that downloads books from torrents (I am an author and I know how much that hurts royalties), or downloads books to a computer and then transfers them to another device to read. The fact that the Kindle comes with its own book store that is available wherever there is Internet connectivity and is pretty well stocked up (you can get most international market releases in English quite easily) is one of the core strengths of the device. It’s a bit like having a bookstore and your own bookrack which can fit into an overcoat pocket.
This was one of the biggest problems with the Kindle initially – titles tended to cost in the vicinity of USD 10 initially. But of late, there has been a dramatic drop in e-book prices and there inevitably a few offers going around which offer e-books at outrageously low prices (we had the Isaacson book on Jobs available for less than a Dollar for a while). What I have noticed is that e-book prices tend to be lower than hardcover and large format edition of hardcover editions is much lower on the Kindle, and generally close to those of paperbacks.
This is one feature of the Kindle that does not get the kind of attention that I think it merits. You can download a sample of almost every book available on the Kindle, totally free of cost. In essence, this means you can get anything from a dozen to thirty pages of a book without paying a penny. So if you are the type that likes to experiment and try out new authors and themes, you can actually grab a sample and read it and then make up your mind about whether you wish to purchase the book. Compare it with being allowed to sit and read a book unhindered wherever you wish for about an hour, with zero pressure from the owner to purchase the book.
That said, I still turn to paper books on some occasions, although these are getting increasingly rare. The most notable of these are:
Graphic novels/ Coffee table/ Photography books
The one area where the reading experience on a Kindle cannot match paper even remotely is when images and colours come into play. Coffee table books, photography books and graphic novels are best read in their paper avatars.
The Kindle Book Store is excellent but the stark fact is that even now, it is easier to pick up and flick over the pages of a paper book than a digital one (which involves downloading and then reading a sample), and one gets a better idea of books by looking at them in a book store, than on a Web page – you can gauge the size of a book simply by looking at it in a book store and the covers do look a whole lot better. Mind you, like Vir Das, I often am guilty of browsing in book stores and then purchasing on the Kindle!
If I want to give a book as a gift, it does make more sense to hand them a paper copy than a digital one. Not least because you can gift wrap the former and even scribble a bit on it.