Back to the future
The tipping point came one Sunday afternoon last December.
My daughter was ten months old and – hallelujah! – temporarily entertaining herself. Desperate for a fix of my novel, I hid behind the arm of the sofa and whipped out my phone. Five minutes later, I felt a small hand tug my trouser leg. ‘Buh’, she said hopefully, waving her beloved copy of Peepo.
‘Mummy’s just reading her book, darling,’ I replied, waving my iPhone in return. ‘Why don’t you read your book and I’ll read mine? Just for two more minutes? Please?’ My daughter looked at me with her you’re-back-on-the-magic-brick-again glare and repeated, sternly, ‘Buh.’
It was only then that I realised. To Missy, books – like shape sorters, and big plastic Chatter Phones with cords – were for kids. When adults got a spare moment, they stared at their bricks. Presumably, whenever she was old enough to be allowed access to the magic bricks, she’d give them up too.
But for now, she wanted buh.
I got my first e-reader in 2009. It was a Christmas present. I had mixed feelings.
On the one hand, THIS WAS THE FUTURE. On the other, swiping at that cold screen was to thumbing through sweet-smelling pages as porn is to sex. Also, this being 2009, and Sony not being Amazon, the selection of downloadable books was seriously limited. Then there was the fact that, as a wannabe author, being part of the move from print to e felt like digging my own financial grave.
After a brief fling with my cherry-red bit on the side, I reverted to paperbacks.
But then my career took off. I started to travel to interminable tech conferences that required, problematically, both one lightweight carry-on bag and a shedload of novels to while away the long-haul flights and the sub-TED talks. I dipped a toe back into the ereader scene and found, that the Kindle Touch was, if not exactly pleasurable to use, inoffensively functional, and that almost all new releases and plenty of backlist titles were now available. My soul shrank, but convenience won out.
After a couple of years I consolidated devices and shifted to the Kindle App on my iPad Air. Then when Missy was born, and I spent most of my time trapped, one-handed and in bad light beneath a feeding baby, I resorted to the ultimate low: reading solely on my phone.
Of course, I felt terrible about having become a digital-only hypocrite. I still believed deeply in the aesthetic superiority and cultural meaning of print books, the value of local bookshops, the utter evil of Amazon, and my own future ability to sell a novel that took six years to write for more than 99p. Of course, I had read the growing body of science telling us that we absorb more, remember more, experience more empathy and even sleep better when we read in print.
But cognitive dissonance mattered less than being able to swipe my way through The Essex Serpent in the pitch black at 3am while being leeched dry by a snorting alien.
That moment last December changed everything. The realisation that she didn’t recognise what I did with that thing in my hand as reading shocked me into action. There and then I made a resolution to only buy print books from real bookshops in 2017. It’s a resolution that has proved easier to keep – and more powerful – than I could have ever imagined.
Accepting science is very different from experiencing it. After only two months of going back to print I can viscerally feel the change in my brain. I read more slowly, more carefully, and with more relish, and I’ve only now realised just how far the quality of my reading had slipped.
My husband and I now spend the majority of our evenings reading; it sounds utterly illogical, but while mutual screen-staring is miserable, mutual page-staring feels somehow… shared.
I’ve discovered that bookshops are even better than they used to be, because the weak links have been weeded out and even the big chains have been forced to up their game to survive. The NearSt app has helped me source as much as possible from local independents, while breaking away from the buy-now button has helped push me out of my digital filter bubble.
As for THE FUTURE, frankly, ebooks ain’t where it’s at. Companies such as Orson & Co may promise to deliver “the next generation of ebooks” with bespoke designs and interactive extras, but long-form reading is an essentially anti-social activity, which requires the simplest of UXs so that all the bells and whistles can take place in your head.
Sure, there are plenty of other ways in which stories are being brought to innovative, exhilarating life, from digital/physical hybrids to virtual reality adaptations to interactive multimodal fiction and live Facebook murder mysteries. But although interacting, playing, watching and listening are all wonderful activities, reading they are not.
So yes, I now have to lug hardbacks around town – but then it’s been the perfect excuse to buy a sexy new backpack. And no, I won’t be able to fit twelve novels into my luggage this summer – but then I’ll be forced to borrow something random from a stranger or friend.
And with a recent US study reporting a sharp decline in children reading for pleasure, and a UK one showing that digital entertainment is stealing kids’ reading time, knowing that my daughter now makes the connection between how much she loves her buh and how much I love mine is worth a tiny bit of extra effort.
Even if you don’t have your own alien leech, going on a print-only book diet is well worth a try. As with so many of my digital habits, I’m only just starting to understand what I’d sacrificed.