Thoughts on e-books… Removing text from common sight.

by , under Arts, Books, Education, Technology

Ode to a bookshelf…

See now the empty bookshelf
that stands still with a thousand volumes
now unseen, the bookends racheted
so tightly, the pages compressed so absolutely
into the digital thinness of silicon.
The words remain, though they are now in bits,
and can be read, just as they once were…
yet not stumbled upon or casually flicked,
not dragged down by the young and curious…
‘Kindle’ they say, but no young fires are lit
from the morgue-white minimalist shelves
of the digital future.



I’ve been reading a bit of stuff on various digital devices while away… I’m not going to be overly Luddite, nor uncritically romantic about a physical-book past: the convenience of having the complete works of Shakespeare and searchable copies of my own stuff on my phone is too much for that. Plus, it’s undoubtably been really good for me in terms of being able to distribute Mutiny! widely.

However, I think we are beginning to see some of the unintended consequences of going for e-books. I recently read some research (sorry, can’t link here at the moment – writing this on a beach in France with crap 3g signal) that found that children who grow up in households with lots of books – regardless of social background – do far better at school. What I’ve come to see about an e-book is that it is an i-book: it is removed from the ‘commons’ of the visible bookshelf and read-from-the-other-side-of-train-carriage to an anonymous, flat piece of text that is far more difficult to share.

Here’s the irony of the ‘Kindle’ – I, and I suppose my story is not uncommon, caught the fire of reading by just grabbing things from my parents’ shelves. I was curious about these objects because they were there. The removal of their physical presence into a digital medium may not affect the owner/reader of the text, but could it close their content down, reducing the possible impact that their materiality might have?

I suspect it might. The chancing upon a cover that looks interesting, the plucking of a volume from the shelf just to have a gander… I worry that in a digital world, the power of the bookshelf as more than a storage space, but a display cabinet too, is neutered.

The world is still being made, of course, and perhaps I may be wrong…. But for me, the power of the book as object, and the gravitational pull that that mass exerts, remains vital. Yes, I’m happy for e-editions of my work to be out there…but I hope that readers will remain thoughtful about the ways that texts are presented, and how they might remain in the public eye, rather than hidden behind log-ons and menus.


Click here to receive updates, and hear first about new projects


  1. KB

    Thanks Jeff – excellent help! And thanks for pushing them my way.

  2. Michael Raburn

    Along these same lines, when I get a new physical book, it sits on my desk (or the table behind my desk, or laying atop other books on a shelf) and its presence calls to me. It sits there, reminding me, “you haven’t read me yet, I have much to share with you.” The ever growing list in my Kindle doesn’t speak to me in the same way. On the contrary, I am more likely to forget about the purchase, the need to read, as the newest or most recently read books push the others off the first ‘page’ of the Kindle list.
    My solution (as in all things) is to make a list. Now I keep a list of books waiting to be read. I never had a list before, just a stack glaring at me. They need to figure a way to make the Kindle glare, to give an occasional “ahem” to keep us (or slackers like me) on task.

  3. camostar

    Yeah, and you can scribble all over the pages in real books. People should make more use of scribbling before they lose their chance to ever do it again.

  4. Simon

    The other loss is physicality of flicking through, browsing, pausing at the diagrams and pictures, reading a paragraph or so where the attention grabs you. Also when I do a writing project I like to pull all the relevant works off the shelf into stacks on the desk and floor – hours later many of these will be wedged open or bookmarked marked with torn paper -then the books get moved around into a semblance of an authorial routemap. I have only Kindled a handful of books, so its still early days – but I might end up reserving the device for fiction. How do others do it?

  5. KB

    Yes, it’s the scribble factor that is lost, and the ability to just happen upon something.

    The problem for me is that for more academic books I can’t scribble notes (or, in Kindle, even copy and paste small sections – which is so annoying… Use Readmill instead?) but I love the presense of fiction works too much – like a supporting cast around me – to hide them on a device. So…apart from a few trashy things, it’s just not for me right now.

  6. KB

    …the other thing I’ve just realised of course is that, while to other observers what you are reading can’t be identified from the device, to the content provider it is very lacking in anonymity: user data is harvested, not only regarding the titles you are reading, but the speed at which you are reading them, the passages you skimmed over or the ones that seemed to be stumbling blocks… And this data is then being fed back to writers and publishers to enable them to adjust their output. I. Feel. Sick.