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Bell, Book & Kindle | Books Ireland, March 2015

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As a bookseller, the perceived challenge posed by modern technology in general and by the kindle in particular to the survival of the book is a matter of professional and personal concern.

The professional concern stems from the strongly held conviction that bookselling is much more than the mere retailing of books, it is an art. A bookshop is possibly the most democratic of retail outlets. Every writer deserves space on its shelves. Every reader has individual tastes and personal reasons for reading any particular title. The bookseller’s job is to allow the author access to the widest possible audience and the reader access to the specific book required as well as to new authors and books that will enhance his or her mental armoury and quality of life.

The personal concern relates to the book as objet d’art. A book is not just a collection of words printed on pages bound together that tells a story or expresses a point of view. At first there is the author’s conception followed by the realisation of this concept on to paper, a painful, lonely and arduous process. This young plant is then nurtured by a series of highly skilled and professional artists, the publisher, the editor, the proof reader, the book designer, the illustrator, the binder, the book representative, the distributor, the reviewer and the bookseller before finally reaching the reader. It is only when the book is opened that it comes into full bloom and realises its potential.

By contrast, at least at first glance, the kindle offers the reader nothing more than a sanitised image with words that repeats a story - a corpse of a book stretched lifeless and depersonalised on a digitised mortuary slab. Page after page of this image follows, never changing, so that eventually the pages merge into one forgettable blob, a senseless conveyor belt of words.

A closer look, however, will discover that the kindle has some obvious and not so obvious features that are of practical use to the book reader.

On the obvious side, there is the ability of the kindle to store the complete text of any amount of books. It is also extremely light. As people generally catch up on their reading while on holidays, they can now carry all the books needed and not worry about extra weight in their luggage. For inveterate readers who are constantly on the road, the portability of the kindle is a godsend.

On the less obvious side, the kindle can download free any amount of seminal dictionaries including the full Oxford English Dictionary. As the retail price of the Dictionary comes in at approximately 900.00 Euro, and there are many other reference works in all languages available free to the punter, this little machine becomes a most useful and inexpensive resource to have in your back pocket.

In order to get a real feel for the Kindle experience, I let it be known to my nearest and dearest that a kindle would be a most welcome birthday gift. Their unspoken bemusement was somewhat justified when, after they had generally acquiesced to the request, the kindle, after the initial flurry of interest, the kindle was left aside seemingly forgotten on the shelf. Eventually, after a number of months, a sense of curiosity, mingled with some guilt, led me to open the contraption.

First impressions were dominated by an overwhelming sense of bewilderment. How was I to translate the oblique morass of swirling shadows into a legible text? As always when confronted with similar technical occurrence, a regular feature of daily life, my family and colleagues enlightened me. Having gradually worked my way into the area where I could select books, I embarked on the acid test of reading one from start to finish and thus experience at first hand the full Kindle experience.

After some thought and due to a personal Reading Challenge, the first book selected for this august occasion was Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North and South”. This rather strange choice was guided by the fact that the narrative voice in the book was string and the plot straightforward. With some trepidation, the first book was opened, or rather clicked upon. The experience was fascinating. The kindle is light and easy to carry in the back pocket or handbag. If you are travelling light, it is handy. No matter where you read it, you are going to draw comment. It’s somewhat like thinking you are the only one with a specific disease only to discover that every mother’s son or daughter either has it or knows somebody who does. Comments range from “You’re not reading one of those yokes are you” to “Give me a book any day” to “The kids brought one for me but it’s still in the box” to “The sister finds it wonderful when she goes on holidays”. However the overriding comment is “It’s so light and so much cheaper than books”.

Due to the fact that you click on from tablet to tablet rather than turn pages, there is a tendency to read quicker and I found myself flicking from tablet to tablet at a fierce rate, almost as if I was race against God knows what.

Relieved that the first experiment was completed, the kindle found its way back into the box and onto the shelf. There it remained until an upcoming holiday prompted me to one more experiment. A few more books from the Reading Challenge were downloaded and away we went. A few light paperbacks were also packed, just in case.

In its present format, there is no doubt that the kindle is a godsend for the frequent traveller as it is for the person who needs to read a book for a specific reason. However, it does not encourage the enjoyment of the text or the language and no matter was book you are reading, the tablet you read from has a monotonous sameness about it that is stultifies any individuality, magic or music the prose may have. You end up reading by rote. Although managing to work my way through three or four books on the kindle, I read more in printed form and, when on the bus from the airport to Galway, I managed to work my way to page 100% of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, it was with a send of refreshing relief that I opened a battered green covered paperback edition of Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye” at page 1. You still can’t beat the real thing!