A confession: I have a Kindle. While the world is generally united on the merits of the computer and the physical book, it’s split down the middle on the subject of Kindles (note: other e-readers are available), which is undoubtedly the Marmite of the literary world. Shaun Bythell, the famously – nay, mythically – grumpy owner of one of my favourite bookshops on the planet, located in Wigtown, Galloway (and called, with typical Gallovidian understatement, The Bookshop), detests the device so much that pride of place on the walls of his shop goes to a terminally deceased, expired, gone-to-meet-its-maker Kindle, which he shot.
(Yes, you did read that correctly. Incidentally, his book, Diary of a Bookseller, is an absolute hoot, although it also has many profoundly serious things to say, and is well worth a read in any format whatsoever.)
Don’t get me wrong, I love physical books, as the state of my house and, above all, my office reveals at once. The big advantage of the Kindle, though, is its portability. Would I take the 800-plus pages of C J Sansom’s mighty new title, Tombland, of which more anon, to read on a train or a flight? Definitely not. But my Kindle adds virtually no weight to my backpack, and even fits into some coat pockets, so it really is a boon for those who travel a fair bit.
One of the other big pros of a Kindle (sorry, Shaun) is that it encourages one to read more, and more catholically, then one would otherwise have done; in other words, I’ll happily take a punt on something outside my usual comfort zones that costs £1.99 on the Kindle, when I’d think more than twice about buying the same title in paperback at £8.99. This isn’t simply on cost grounds, either, and indeed, with my author hat on, I know that this is the economics of the madhouse for my profession – and, yes, for me, personally. (Not entirely, of course: the logic, or rather the optimistic fantasy, is that so many people will become hooked on your one heavily discounted title that they’ll snap up the rest at full price.) But my bookshelves are literally groaning under the weight of the titles I bought between about five and forty years ago, read for a maximum of about fifty pages, and then abandoned with a vague promise that I’d return to them some day, a bit like the promises you make to yourself every 1 January that this really will be the year when you finally arrange to meet that old friend who sends you Christmas cards but who you haven’t seen in decades.
(Of course, I really should despatch said books to a charity shop. But the ‘old friend’ analogy applies here, too – after all, even if you don’t meet him or her this year, you’ll still send keep that friend on your Christmas card list, and will still make the same promise next December.)
So the Kindle saves space, but the relative cheapness of the books bought for it means it’s possible to be a lot more selective, nay, ruthless, in one’s reading. I used to make it a point of principle that if I started a book, I’d finish it – except of course for all the ones mentioned above that I, umm, didn’t finish. But then I came upon one of the wisest expressions ever coined by mankind, namely, ‘life’s too short to read bad books’. And in this respect, the Kindle is a godsend, especially its relentless statistics – the percentage already read, and the estimated time that reading the rest of the book will take. I work on ‘the 20% rule’, namely, that if I get to 20% and am still interested in the story and characters, I’ll finish it. (There are exceptions: I recently got to about 75%, thought ‘why am I still reading this garbage?’, and went out in a belated attempt to get a life.) However, there are intermediate stages. Many titles have perished at just 10%, some even at 5%, and here are some of the reasons why.
1/ Anachronisms – Some recent examples of howlers that have led me to abandon ship somewhere between 1 and 10%:
- So you’ve set a novel in the pre-1914 Austro-Hungarian Empire, but think Slovenia was an independent state at the time? Try Googling ‘historical maps of central Europe’. Or just ‘history’. (Conversely, I stuck with the otherwise excellent First World War thriller which jarringly used ‘Benelux’ instead of ‘the low countries’ – the first use of the former term was in 1944.)
- You’re a highly acclaimed bestselling author, but you think that milk bottles during the Second World War had use-by dates on them? Mais non.
- You’ve written a thriller set against the backdrop of the late Victorian royal family, but use completely wrong forms of address for pretty much every titled character in your story? Does the word ‘Debrett’ mean nothing to you?
- Above all, you’ve set your story in, say, twelfth century Italy or fifteenth century England, and yet [a] your characters never, ever, go to church, and [b] your dialogue could have come straight out of a script for Eastenders? (‘How ya doin’, ‘enry V, me old mucker?’) Bye bye. (Even the aforementioned Mr Sansom, one of the titans of the genre, was recently criticised on social media for his constant references to ‘lunch’ in the mid-sixteenth century, when no such meal existed. A fair cop, although I think it’s more than offset by what must be the first extensive uses of the words feodary and escheator in a bestselling novel…)
No doubt some of you are thinking that those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and are even now thumbing through your copies of the Quinton books to find some of my howlers. This would be another fair cop – there are plenty out there! – were it not for the possibility that some devious authors might also plant such slips deliberately, perhaps for narrative reasons, perhaps to see if their readers are awake and paying attention (and even if I just made that up to cover my back, how will you ever know…?). For example, although it wasn’t a slip as such, I moved the date of Easter 1662 in Gentleman Captain, simply because I needed to. Did anybody object? Come to that, did anybody notice? Nope.
2/ Not interested – I’m generally a tolerant soul when it comes to grammar (misplace an apostrophe, though, and you’re toast). But there are a very few linguistic errors that get me reaching for the metaphorical equivalent of Mr Bythell’s shotgun, and one of them is the modern habit of using ‘disinterested’ instead of ‘uninterested’. OK, I know that modern usage is generally more forgiving of this than I am (even Oxford says it’s fine, and who am I to argue with my old alma mater?), but in this one specific instance, I’m on the side of the dinosaurs.
3/ The Curse of the Folder – Actually, this should be one of the advantages of the Kindle, i.e. the option to organise titles into suitably titled folders (a bit like the way in which your physical books really should be arranged on suitably organised shelves, but aren’t, and never will be). I always have about a dozen titles in my ‘Current’ folder – the immediate ‘to read’ list, the ones which, I tell myself, I’m going to read next. Except I never do. Something new comes along, and always seems a bit more interesting than Title X, which has already languished in the ‘Current’ folder for months. Maybe years. And will probably still be there, at 0%, in months or years to come.
For all its foibles, then, I’m a fan of the Kindle, and the evidence of recent years demonstrates that far from bringing about the death of the physical book, it’s actually co-existed with a resurgence of the latter. After all, many in the 1950s and 1960s predicted that TV would mean the death of radio, whereas instead, the two have complemented each other and gone from strength to strength. So, sorry, Shaun, I won’t be joining you on the next Kindle shoot.
I’ll be having another blog-free week next week, but on the following Monday, i.e. 10 December (December?!?! How on earth did that happen?),I’ll be making a really important and exciting announcement. Watch this space!