E-readers, and the decline of the borrowed book


I have to say, I am probably one of the more annoying people you’re going to borrow a book from. For starters, my brother gave me a ‘Home Library’ kit last Christmas, which means I can indulge my inner bossy librarian and issue borrowing cards, stamp return dates, and generally cackle with very un-librarian like glee as I press my latest best-loved book upon you. See above for stamping in action.

This aside, I’m also kind of fraught when I lend books – not over their physical condition (I’m an unabashed dog-earer and spine cracker), but how friends will react to what I loan them. I’ll quote my favourite lines, rhapsody over why this is probably the most important work ever published EVER, hassle you to start reading it, want your reactions as you begin, in the middle and a final full length seminar debrief if you finally ever manage to hit the end. I also crack out lines like “I don’t know if we can be friends if you don’t love XYZ” just to pile on the pressure.

But even given my deficiencies as a loaner of books (and believe me, I have a collection large enough to open up a private lending library), there’s something lovely about borrowing a book from a friend. It goes further than a mere recommendation: something about the physical handing over of an object that has attained meaning or significance indicates not only the strength and trust of your friendship, but your passion for the book itself – it is so crucial that someone else read this book right now, that you just HAVE to hand it over.

It was with some sadness then, that I read that Amazon has reported that sales of e-books have outstripped those of paper books in the UK. Not because I’m a technophobe: I have a Kindle, and I think it serves its purpose very well (although I often end up doubling up on purchases when I really love a book, because there’s just something about physical books that I can’t give up on…). But it does make me wonder if the days of impassioned loaners and eager borrowers, passing books round circles of friends and family, are numbered.

I remember first coming to Harry Potter through a borrowed book – it was one of those must-read-books that everyone seemed to be passing around. But if I think about the must-read-books of the moment – say, for example, The Hunger Games – I know I’ll have to bite the bullet and buy them myself if I want to read them. For despite knowing multiple people who’ve read and recommended The Hunger Games I’ve not got anyone to borrow it from – even my mum has read it, and so a “copy” exists in the same house as me – and yet it is inaccessible, locked away on my mum’s e-reader.

Maybe this is a good thing: the article I linked to above quotes the statistic that Amazon customers buy four times as many books once they’ve purchased an e-reader, which is surely a boon to the much beleaguered publishing industry. And whilst there’s probably a variety of reasons of this (instant gratification, the guilt-free euphoria of internet shopping…) it seems possible that this lack of access to copies cadged off friends and family could be a contributing factor.

Far be it from me to begrudge publishers and authors increased revenues and sales – and I certainly won’t be hunting down bootleg digital copies of e-books online. But there’s something cold and economic about glorying in the rise of the e-book, and despite all my hard-headed attempts to see this in a rational light, the hopeless romantic in me can’t let go of the idea that books are something beyond products to be sold. I can’t give up on curling yellowed pages, unexpected margin notes, dog-ears, on having a book, the dust-jacket long lost, pressed into my hands by someone who has loved whatever it happens to be.The e-reader allows us to own more and more books than our limited shelf-space might have ever allowed us to, but they make books a strangely secretive, private and limited affair, rather than the sociable objects crowding comfortably round a family living room, waiting for anyone to wander in, pick up a stray and begin leafing through…

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