Although a Kindle owner myself, whenever I get on the tube and see another passenger with an e-reader I feel secretly frustrated that I have no idea what they are reading. And no matter how much I try to peer over their shoulder, nothing on that grey and black screen gives it away.
Yesterday I experienced an even stranger phenomenon, a girl with what appeared to be a slightly dog-eared first edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland jauntily resting on her lap, looking like something out of a quaint 19th century novel herself. However, as I looked a little closer, intrigued by the faded but beautiful cover, I quickly realised that instead of being filled with slightly crisped, tea-stained pages as I had originally expected (and as she clearly wanted everyone to believe), neatly tucked inside, was a Kindle. I felt duped! Immediately the whole persona of her character was broken and the imaginary world I had created around this person (and her assumed beautiful collection of first edition children’s books neatly alphabetised in her personal library) shrank as quickly as Alice herself.
In reality, all probability points towards the fact that this girl was likely just reading another, racy, 50 Shades of Grey-esque novel like every other woman in the world who isn’t getting enough. “It’s a good story!” I hear you protest… sure.
I was disappointed. Perhaps wanting to know what other people are reading just highlights my nosiness, of course it does not matter what anybody else has got their nose stuck into, I am free to read what I like without being judged and everybody else should be allowed the same freedom. And yet, there’s a small part of me that wants people to know what I’m reading; “Yes everyone, I am taking the time to read The Economist on the way to work!” or “It’s been a long day in the office so I’m just going to tuck into War and Peace, for some light reading!” A book can give us a façade. No matter how hard we try not to, we do judge books by their covers and we do judge people by their covers. Why else would a publishing company spend so much on designers and GSM?
Perhaps this is why the Kindle has gained so much popularity, not only because you can fit an entire library into your back pocket, but also because it provides you with some privacy to read whatever the hell you like without being judged. So what if I want to tuck into the latest ‘chick-noir’ on my way to work? Because, actually, I use my brain enough during the day that sometimes it just needs to settle into an easy-read, without judgement.
However, whilst we have no-doubt gained from this privacy, we have also lost a great deal when turning to the book’s digital counterpart. We cannot share books in the way we used to, passing them through friends and family to share stories and experiences with those closest to us. Although many of us just palm this off as a slight ‘inconvenience’; because the liberation of privacy and bag-space surely outweighs the inability to do this. Doesn’t it?
Lending and sharing books has always been a great part of our culture, since the printing press was first invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440, printed information, language and stories have spread across the world and across generations. When we share these printed objects, we also share knowledge, opinions and ideas. As we share less and less, not only the act of sharing the gift of a beautiful physical object and all its multi-sensory glory – but also the act of sharing even just the title of the book, there is a risk we may limit ourselves.
The success of websites like Goodreads shows us that people miss this act of sharing, and value what we previously gained from it. On websites such as this you are able to share what you are currently reading, your own rating and review of the book and even make suggestions to your friends. It might be argued that sharing through digital means allows us to reach an even wider scope of people, bonding with strangers over literature, to create a wider network and community across the world. What now limits us in the real world, forces us to connect with others in the digital environment.
Using Goodreads, we are able to make reading clubs with thousands of people around the world. Take the success of Emma Watson’s ‘Our Shared Shelf’ as an example of this. Currently the group has 143,258 members – something unimaginable 5 years ago – nobody’s living room was big enough to host that group! Now, we do not even need to leave the house to make these connections and build these new relationships, ones that once could only be founded through travel and touch.
The digital reading liberation is in its infancy: although there have been countless gains, we have not yet been able to capture all the experiences we have lost of the ‘real’ environment. As advancements in technology continue to move rapidly, we can hope that not everything in our lives will become a shiny box, and that texture, smell, taste and feeling are not lost because they too bring us liberation through experience. These sensory experiences have, and always will be, an essential part of sharing.