Defending the Love of Reading

World Book Day happened last week and I was pleased to see so many children getting involved in dressing as their favourite characters. World Book Day is a great day to champion quite how magical reading a good story can be and the levels of participation seen across the country.

Last week also saw the frankly heart-breaking story of Callum Manning, a 13-year-old boy from Newcastle bullied for his love of reading.

Callum’s story really got to me as I do relate very much – even from my own secondary school days, reading was an almost weird activity to admit to enjoying. Perhaps that’s due  to secondary school being the domain of adolescents with other more physical pursuits that leaves those content with nestling away with a book in the library seen as “abnormal”.

As a secondary school kid myself back in 2001 I found it very difficult to fit into the cliquey nature of secondary school as I didn’t really share many of the more “mainstream” interests in sport, nor did I find socialising with my peers at an all-boys school particularly easy because I didn’t share those core, keystone interests that boys bond over. For some reason, then and now, boys who don’t seek the pleasures of sport – or the opposite sex – aren’t seen as “normal” boys.

Is this because of a predilection to assume masculinity in this country (and perhaps the Western world generally) does not promote intellectual prowess as a key trait? Perhaps it keys back to prehistoric times where physical strength was valued as a survival trait?

Both of those questions are a little beyond the scope of this post but both pose interesting questions about how boys are raised in this country, on a societal level. Maybe World Book Day is seen as a more “childish” thing, so reading in general is lumped in with that?

Photo by Polina Zimmerman on Pexels.com

But getting back to the point of reading, I feel that there are very few male role models in Western society that seem to champion the power of thought. Most boys have sporting icons as heroes and the few that seemed to exist (the Doctor from Doctor Who, prior to 2018 at least) seem to have largely fallen by the wayside.

Therefore, I understand the mindset of those that cruelly tormented Callum for his love of reading, but pity it immensely. As an adolescent myself I recall I had to be very select about who I shared my “esoteric” interests – history, computer games that weren’t the usual “boys” staple, like The Sims and SimCity, and books – and it’s this that likely made me the very private person I am today. It’s something I’m attempting to shed as a characteristic in my 30s now because I’ve stopped caring, frankly.

That said I think this perceived anti-intellectualism that pervades society to look strangely at readers continues. When I joined Facebook in 2008, a disappointing number of people listed things like “I don’t read” in their favourite books section. Even now, researching this post, 78,000 people have this on their page as of 2020. It’s sad and heart-breaking because it’s such a missed opportunity.

I also apportion some of the blame for this sentiment to mass media – shows like Love Island, Geordie Shore and The Only Way is Essex are harmful as they actively promote a “it’s cool to be stupid” air to them. It’s a race to the bottom, and society seems to be dumbing down.

Even back in my more formative years, shows like Big Brother catapulted people such as Jade Goody to public consciousness. While what happened to Jade at the end of her life was awful and not something I’d ever wish on someone, was Jade quite the person to be front and centre of British society like she was? I was sceptical at the time and remain so.

Image result for love island logo

Of course, I don’t propose we bring up kids on a diet of Radio 4, classical music and Tolstoy. These shows, the most egregious I think being Love Island, actively promote this apparent “bimbo” culture – if you have a “hot bod”, it doesn’t matter that you know nothing. You will succeed on no discernible “talent”, but on how marketable your image is. Indeed, there’s already some consternation about the hidden toxicity of the show right now.

It’s a superficial culture that seems to actively promote a lack of thought, a shallowness that I find, personally, distasteful. While I would never begrudge these people their “trash TV”, I do find its prevalence in a race-to-the-bottom worrying. And as we’ve seen with Love Island recently, the brightest candles burn shortest.

But let’s get back to the more positive nature of World Book Day. I think it’s wonderful to see so many kids celebrating their love of stories. I think reading is a magical activity – you stare at ink on a dead tree and imagine things. It’s totally engrossing and I’m so glad my own reading has taken up this year, I am very much enjoying it.  More and more people should take the time, challenge themselves to a book and they’d realise too what an engrossing and amazing experience getting lost in a good (or bad) story can be!

Book Thoughts: Abandoning eInk for Real Ink

Book Thoughts by Richard Holliday

In 2011 I got my first and so far only Kindle – a grey Kindle 4 – and it revolutionised how I read. And now it sits begotten and forlorn on my shelf in its battered folio case, surrounded by paperbacks.

Honestly even thinking about this makes me realise how irrational this is. But front and centre I’ll admit now that I am re-converting back to paperbacks, to the degree even that I’m seriously planning to rebuy the books I have on Kindle as physical dead trees.

It’s mad isn’t it?!

Now don’t get me wrong, the Kindle is a fantastic piece of kit, and my Kindle is one of the rare pieces of technology I own that I truly love unconditionally. The eInk display is pretty much paper-like, without the glare of a backlit LCD that is objectively bad for your eyes. Indeed, the eInk is legitimately better paper than paper – features such as dynamic text size, font choice, and even context info and inline dictionary definitions for those tricky words make it objectively more capable than paper.

books on wooden shelves inside library

A Kindle can contain hundreds of books and not weigh the same as a small car. The battery lasts forever – even on my ancient Kindle 4. It fits in a bag very easily and  the latest Paperwhite versions can even be read in the dark. But the Kindle remains a technological item in that it does run out of battery, it is reliant on WiFi and these niggles can break the experience of reading that a paperback – or other physical book – simply doesn’t need to worry about.

black and white bed stripes kindle

Largely I’ve found that Kindle books aren’t that much of a saving on traditional paperbacks, so the cost savings are modest. Taking into account, as of time of writing, three popular books sourced from the Top 50 Fiction on amazon.co.uk:

  • The Testaments by Margaret Attwood – Kindle £9.99; Hardback £10 Saving: 0.1%
  • The Holiday by TM Logan – Kindle £2.60; Paperback £6.60 Saving 87%
  • Echo Burning by Lee Child – Kindle £1.99; Paperback £7.99 Saving 75%

I’ve also drilled down into the Top 100 Sci-Fi Fiction:

  • Artemis by Andy Weir – Kindle £4.99; Paperback £8.96 Saving 45%
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson – Kindle £5.99; Paperback £6.87 Saving 13%

AmazonSept19Kindle

Already it could be said that the potential savings are considerable with a few exceptions; surely savings upward of 33% could be worth the downfalls of the format that I’ll touch on soon. It’s important also to note that there’s a few important caveats on that quick comparison: quite a few of the paperbacks are not discounted; the Kindle editions quite frequently are, heavily so. I’ve been able to find a great deal of mainstream chart books, for instance, the Lee Child Jack Reacher novels, significantly cheaper in physical format outside of traditional bookshops (think: supermarkets). This phenomenon was reflected in a couple of examples that I located of high-profile books being cheaper in paperback than Kindle, or more commonly, where the saving on Kindle was not significant:

  • Killing Floor by Jack Reacher – Kindle £4.99; Paperback £4.50 Expense 10%
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – Kindle £4.99; Paperback £5.99 Saving 17%

Of course it would be facile of me to disregard totally the trend for ebooks to be cheaper; it’s not a hard and fast rule, but a general trend, and it depends totally upon publisher and offer time. And those savings come at a price nonetheless, it just may not be monetary.

One of the things I’ve found refreshing about my own personal paperback renaissance is the sense that I am owning my books. With Kindle and other ebook platforms, you simply own a licence to access the content via the vendor in question’s storefront or platform – and your books are only readable on that specific platform due to DRM (though there’s millions of free ebook files to be found). Amazon’s infamous instance of remotely deleting 1984 from people’s Kindles is a tart example of the fallacy in this model, arguably. And indeed, what happens if the obscure format becomes unsupported?

And there’s something wholesome and comforting about perusing the shelves of a bookshop and taking punts on recommendations left by the staff, who all love reading themselves. Indeed, some of my favourite reads recently have been ones I’ve taken a punt on after spying a book in a bookshop – Feed by Mira Grant and The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh are two notable recent ones I thoroughly enjoyed.

The fuzziest reason I’ve gone back to physical books is the sheer experience. The feeling, the smell and the sensation of looking at a dead tree with some ink and hallucinating is really rather magical. Quite often when I do use my Kindle these days I have to think if I remembered to charge it recently, whether it was still connected to my WiFi, or whether I’d sent the document I wanted to read on it… with a paperback book I’ve found there’s none of those considerations – one just sits down and opens the book. While over time I have adjusted to a largely digital world and workflow – lord knows, I’d love a typewriter, for romantic reasons; my productivity would crater however – there’s something about the simplicity that comes from an analogue experience that just flows better for me. Again it’s fuzzy, sentimental reasoning, and I have no grudge or ill will towards those who live for their eReaders, but reading should always be a comfortable, personal experience and these days I’m content to bury my head in a well-presented paperback.

But the whole precis of this discussion is that I simply don’t much enjoy the Kindle experience, and that’s a shame – as I recognise the benefits of the Kindle: features like X-ray, the ability to store hundreds, even thousands of books, adjustable text size, font and margins… but it just comes across as a little soulless. So much so that I’m honestly deciding whether to start re-buying my Kindle purchases as paperbacks, a process I’ve already started with the likes of The Fog by James Herbert and One by Conrad Williams. But also series I want to rediscover – I recall reading a fair number of the Lincoln Rhyme books by Jeffrey Deaver and in a weird way they seem less accessible on my Kindle!

I’d be interested to see what people think in the comments! Get to it!

Stock photos by by Caio Resende and Stanislav Kondratiev on Pexels.com; Waterstones Piccadilly (London) from Havwoods.co.uk

Amazon prices correct as of 14th September 2019

Book Thoughts: The Attraction of Physical Bookshops

Book Thoughts by Richard Holliday

A recent newsworthy event was that Waterstones, arguably the leading High Street brick-and-mortar bookshop here in the UK was to acquire Foyles, a chain of independent bookshops with a storied history.

22645332375_f291355686_z
The outside of my local Waterstones

Ordinarily I would be fairly unimpressed at the homogenisation of the marketplace as I do believe competition fosters the best – indeed, over the last fifteen years or so the number of discrete chains of bookshops has steadily declined through acquisitions. Borders, Dillons, Ottakars… I was even a little disappointed when I visited Hatchard’s in Piccadilly at the recommendation of a friend to find it was a slightly-rebadged Waterstones. Not that that was intrinsically bad… but I’d left the flagship Waterstones store (which I instantly fell in love with) to explore this purported quirky independent.

Returning to the point: the UK retail book market has essentially homogenised into three large players whose stores I do frequent often – a trip down the High Street usually results in popping into all three:

  • Waterstones is the “full-fat Coke” of UK bookshops – stores that have wonderful bookish atmospheres that encourage browsing.
  • WH Smiths, whose more utilitarian “plain vanilla” shops lack a bit of soul, but WH Smiths has that rich history behind the name, for it was WH Smiths that led the popularisation of fiction back in the Industrial Revolution;
  • The Works, a young upstart whose stores are cheap and cheerful, usually packed with items and nick-nacks I have no interest in purchasing but there’s always the chance of a discount steal. Indeed for a long while I did not know that The Works sold books!

Why am I telling you this? Waterstones would have you believe that the acquisition of Foyles is about challenging Amazon as the big intangible behemoth. Whether that’s strictly true (or if it’s a calculated attempt to simply buy up market share) is not really the remit of my blog but it’s a precursor to the point I want to make and started with in the first Book Thoughts post.

But what’s interesting is that each of those three major chains seems to have carved out their own particular part of the book market – Waterstones is perhaps more “premium”; WH Smiths is more in the middle; The Works serves the budget end of the market. And that’s actually a great thing as it serves the entirety of the market with pretty good bookshop coverage – something for everyone!

Not only, in recent times, do I read more physical books while my Kindle gathers dust in a drawer, I find myself purchasing these books in a physical bookshop – usually but not always a Waterstones. Waterstones is certainly not the cheapest place to purchase books but, much like libraries, physical, tangible bookshops I think are important to support.

659508

I’ve actually been one of those people who goes into a bookshop and photographs a book to look it up later. Indeed, throughout University my first port-of-call would be to buy the paperback on Amazon and have it whisked at near-light speed to me via Prime – because it was convenient and I was hardly the most assiduous student, a fact I take no pride in.

But what I’ve noticed more than anything… buying books on Amazon is so mechanical and, if you like, soulless an experience it’s a little disheartening. What Waterstones, especially, but the others do well also, is to foster a sense of discoverability. Browsing in Waterstones is a joyous experience because their stores are near-universally great places. There’s a sense of care and attention, maybe even a bit of personalisation in each when it comes to the table displays and endorsement cards that adorn shelves.

Again, whether that’s a corporate missive or genuine is neither here nor there. This post is not intended to be a treatise on the rights and wrongs, and the motivations of large companies. I’ve had wonderful experiences buying books from Waterstones, chatting to engaged and enthusiastic staff… it’s an experience I feel Amazon cannot replicate. Amazon does a lot well, but this is one thing I feel visiting a physical store cannot compare to.

20677194752_b282f7f5f4_k
My local Waterstones in Sutton, South London. Photo credit: Tony Monblat

That’s not to say Waterstones as a company is perfect. I’m aware of stories where they’ve acted what seems to be capriciously in notable times, and they’ve perhaps thrown their weight around as the UK’s dominant bookseller to mistreat authors. And it’s easy to chalk them up as another “big corporation” – this is by no means a total defence of Waterstones, but neither is it a total defence of Amazon. Waterstones may still be the biggest bookshop chain in the UK, and about to grow some more, but even then as a corporate identity Amazon is a truly gargantuan behemoth.

20063857194_d2fcf57e13_k
My local Waterstones in Sutton, South London. Photo credit: Tony Monblat

What I am defending is the experience that a physical bookshop gives to its customers – this an experience I am totally in favour of. Waterstones are the totem of what I’d call a welcoming environment for book lovers – not to say independent bookshops are worse, but Waterstones as a brand are cementing their position. And their shops – like all bookshops – are ones we should support as readers.

Physical books are making a surprising comeback, and I’m happy to think about factors other than solely the bottom line on my wallet. I’m happy to pay for the experience of walking into a bookshop and enjoying the experience of being there. Amazon might have the convenience and price factor (and I’m not for one moment saying I’ll never buy a book on Amazon again) but they lack the experience and discoverability that walking around a physical bookshop can provide.

Oh, and the irony among irony? Waterstones’ website is a pale imitation of Amazon – so the battle lines are drawn!