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Leah McLaren

How the rise of e-readers takes the fun out of giving books Add to ...

This is the Christmas of the e-book.

If you don't believe me, read the fine print: A recent U.S. consumer report found that 10 per cent of adults are planning to give an e-reader as a gift, compared to just 6 per cent last year. Correspondingly e-books, which last Christmas made up just 1 per cent of the overall book-market share, are now up to nearly 10 per cent.

In Canada, Kobo e-reader is the top-selling gift at Chapters Indigo. And this week Google opened its own bookstore offering for free many of the odd 15 million out-of-print titles the big brain has scanned in the past six years, plus new releases for sale as well.

Publishing-industry experts are calling the holiday season a "tipping point" - with good reason. Curling up with a new novel on Christmas morning will never be the same.

It's a revolution. There's no turning back. And I, for one, am dragging my feet at the back of the stampede - though not for the reasons you might expect.

Stay with me! I swear this is not going to be one of those hackneyed columns about how much we'll all miss the old-fashioned book. I travel too much to be sentimental about the beauty of marginalia or the satisfying crack of a hardcover spine. Hauling books around the globe has cost me thousands in excess baggage fees, and left me with a hyper-extended left shoulder and a nagging sense of having misplaced something important. Hardly a week has gone by since university when I haven't stood up from my desk thinking, "Where is that book?" then spent half an hour scouring my shelves before concluding it must be boxed away in my parent's basement. The idea that, having attained an e-reader of my own, I will now be able to have all my books contained in a single device, like a pocket-sized library complete with personalized Dewey Decimal System, is so liberating it's almost magic.

My issue is with other people's books. Specifically that the act of giving books as gifts - once the simplest of holiday rituals - has been perverted beyond recognition as a result of technology.

In the olden days (a.k.a. last Christmas), if you really wanted to read a hardcover book but couldn't justify the expense, all you needed to do was buy it for your partner for Christmas, then steal it back as soon as it had languished for the requisite six weeks on his night table.

But it's more than that. In the era of Kindle, Kobo and iPads, we have become literary pod people. While movies and music can still be a shared experience, book consumption is necessarily a solitary pursuit. Old-fashioned books can be passed around in a way that personal e-readers cannot. You might lend your friend a paperback, but would you lend them your entire library (especially one they might destroy by dropping it in the bathtub)? Sharing (or better yet stealing) the reading experience is no longer an option.

Book buying, by extension, has become an impersonal exchange. Soulless gift cards and instant e-certificates are, of course, the only option when there is no specific book object to wrap. But giving gift cards in a long-term relationship is depressing. It's like saying, "Here's 150 Amazon dollars. That's how much I love you. Please adjust to reflect my portion of the mortgage payment."

Back in the days of personal (discounted and non-refundable) hardcover book choice, not only could you hand-select books for your friends and loved ones, you could pass silent judgment on them too. Nothing says "I wish you'd be more sensitive to our child's needs," like Emma Donoghue's Room, or "You need to learn to live in the moment," than The Book of Awesome, or "I'm leaving you for a 22-year-old bisexual Swedish cyber-terrorist" (the entire Stieg Larsson series). The triumph of e-readers has robbed us of far more than the antiquated rustle of paper, or shelves full of dusty old tomes. It has robbed us of the ability to share, discuss and passive-aggressively communicate through our mutual gift-book choices.

And here's the most alarming thing: Once e-books completely take over, it will become impossible to know who actually reads and who doesn't. Pretending to read books (fiction, in particular) has long been a vague, almost subconscious habit of the modern, educated urban male. I'm not saying intelligent men can't read, just that mostly they don't, and in spite of this indisputable fact, an alarming number persist in giving the false impression they do.

Until recently, it was possible to suss out a fake reader with a surreptitious glance around his apartment. Nothing but the collected works of Kurt Vonnegut and an unopened pile of Economists on display? Bingo. In the era of e-readers, however, such handy spy work becomes nearly impossible. You'd have to get on a password-friendly basis before being able to ascertain a prospective sex partner's reading habits - and in this day and age, that's tantamount to marriage.

And so, as the e-reader revolution reaches its inevitable conclusion this holiday season, we must collectively bid farewell to the days of sharing, stealing and silent literary judgment. Even in the absence of the book, the printed word will persist, and that's the important thing, right? And yet beneath the carols, the words of the Smiths' song ring in my ears this Christmas: "There's more to life than books you know, but not much more."

Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

 

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