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27 September 2012

For reasons too boring to mention, weight has become a pressing issue in my holiday packing. The space once occupied by books has given way to other things. OK, I had a baby and he has his own rather large luggage allowance, yet my love of reading has not dimmed. So, this summer I bought an e-reader.

I’d seen them on the beaches of the Cote d’Azur. Legions of leathery old ladies – less Fifty Shades of Grey, more 20 hues of walnut – held them above their spreading ancient bodies on the sand. Here at least, the book is a dying breed.

I must admit that there was a certain thrill at the moment of purchase. No longer would I need to plough through the three-for-two shelves in departure-lounge bookshops; I’d just download and enjoy. There was also a giddy moment of bulk-buying. I filled my new buddy with the books I’d previously had neither the time to buy nor the space to carry. The screen worked wonders in the sun; I thought myself rather clever.

Except, in so many ways, I wasn’t.

The e-reader is a smug little beast. It wants to reinvent reading: progress is measured in percentages not pages, a conceit I found rather baffling. If I didn’t give it enough attention it went to “sleep”, its screen filling with neat images of pencils and printing blocks. It was saying, “Dear reader, no longer trouble yourself with those arcane tools, I’ve nailed everything for you.”

Within the body of a text, phrases other people had particularly enjoyed were highlighted for me. I felt deprived of the ability to think for myself and as though my privacy had been weirdly invaded. Conversely, on the beach, legions of anonymous grey-backed machines meant I lost the little delight of knowing what my neighbour was enjoying.

Another particular holiday pleasure that has now lost its charm is mealtime reading. While my companion immersed himself in the papery bliss of a magazine – letting the pages absorb here a smear of breakfast butter, there a sop of fresh tomato – the e-reader didn’t like crumbs, olive oil or prawns. It is now dirtier than my baby’s bib.

In fairness, my e-reader did lie neatly on a beach towel. But it didn’t do sand, suncream or salty fingers. Nor did it enjoy being thumped petulantly on a table.

Above all, I lost the direct experience of reading. My eyes still scanned but it didn’t feel right. I wanted to rush to the nearest bookshop to make sure the words tallied on page and screen. I missed the cover. I forgot the title. I distracted myself with a daydream, a potter, a graze. Anything but reading.

And however hackneyed the notion, I missed the sheer physicality of a book. The simple joys of flicking back, scanning ahead, using a train ticket or boarding pass as a bookmark to show my progress. Saying a book gives up its charms in the same manner as an e-reader is like comparing an artful striptease to undressing for the doctor.

The e-reader is a compromise. It’s a concession to lightweight travel but that’s it. And as was once the case with a lady next to me on a flight who gave herself an impromptu pedicure, I’m stuck with it for the duration.


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