Never Judge a Book by its Home Page

by Mary Jackson (July 2011)

Absurdly Leftist but occasionally funny Liverpudlian Jewish comedian Alexei Sayle's best sketch is the simplest. It juxtaposes the quick (and not so quick) and the dead, and, with no trace of nuance, asks why:

Jimi Hendrix – dead. Phil Collins – alive. Ginger Rogers – dead. Sue Pollard – alive. Francis Bacon – dead. That bloke out of Kula Shaker – alive. Death be not proud – who wrote that? That's right, it was John Donne. He of course has snuffed it, whereas Sir Andrew Lloyd Stinking Sir Bloody Webber is still stinking bloody with us! Shakespeare – dead. The wankers who wrote 'Three lions on a shirt! Football's cummin 'ome!' – still alive. Bill Shankley – dead. Graham Taylor – alive. Karen Carpenter – dead. The carpenter who fucked up my bleeding kitchen! Alive! It's as if God has developed a nasty mean streak. Anybody the least bit decent and wallop! Up they go! And what are we left with? The shite – that's what! I'll give you some more examples – bloke down the pub who said he'd do my accounts and introduce me to some powerful people in American television – dead. Bloke down the pub, 120 years old, spits in his beer, tells me about the great war – doesn't sound so bleedin great to me – he's still alive.

And so it continues – in the sketch and in life. Columbo, the maverick one-eyed sleuth has solved his last case. In contrast, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber whose case was bungled, and who was released nearly two years ago, on the “compassionate” grounds that he had but three months to live, is alive and bloody kicking. Cockles and mussels and two eyes to boot.

I was put in mind of Sayle’s railing on visiting the Amazon Kindle store, having won the e-reader in a competition.  Compare the prices:

A Journey by Tony Blair: £6.90. A Pilgrim’s Progress: £0.70. The one you take with a pinch of salt; the other can be had for a peppercorn.

Decline and Fall (2005 – 2010), the diaries of Labour politician Chris Mullen will set you back £10.77. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire costs 70 pence if you want all six volumes together, or £0.00 if you get them one at a time. One at a time is fine, as Rome didn’t fall in a day.

Dreams of My Father by Barrack Obama: £4.55. The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine: £0.00. Yes, the rights of man come free, gratis and for nothing.

I hear the ghost of Oscar Wilde complain that I’m giving the price of everything and the value of nothing. As well he might — you can get all his works for £0.00.

The Complete Works of Shakespeare costs £0.00, £9.49 less than Goddess of Vengeance by Jackie Collins. Of course, with Shakespeare, you’ll need to add value added tax of 20%; that’s still £0.00, for nothing will come of nothing.

Paradise Lost costs nothing – that apple so easily taken – although if Adam wants Paradise Regained as well it will set him back 70 pence. A cheap indulgence, I’d say, and it’s such an old book, too. Spend £6.90 and Adam can upgrade to the spanking new Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong.  How many steps does Milton have? As many as the Pope has divisions; incidentally, you can get An Essay on Criticism for nothing, and The Lock, formerly £0.00, has been cut by 50%.

Adam will get with the programme, but what of Eve? Well, Jane Austen and the Brontës, may cost nothing, but Eat, Pray, Love, at £3.14, gives you “one woman’s search for everything”.  It’s a no-brainer.

The Bible and the Koran are both £0.00, including value added tax but excluding jizyah. According to the site recommendations, customers who have “bought” the one have “bought” the other, demonstrating that man can serve two masters: God and Allah, but not mammon.  I downloaded the Koran immediately, with a view to deleting it on YouTube pour encourager les autres.

The disparity in price is not just a matter of taste. As our Liverpudlian comedian might say, it is a matter of life and death.  The good stuff is out of copyright, as the author has been dead for more than seventy years, so the e-book costs nothing or next to nothing. Still, while there is nothing magical about it, I took great pleasure at the thought of Dickens, Gibbon, Shakespeare, Swift, Milton, Pope and the rest all swooshing their way onto my Kindle in under a minute, and for nothing. Would that Gibbon, in particular, which I should have read but haven’t, swooshed its way into my brain so easily.  This brings me to the main advantage of the Kindle and other e-readers – there are several such e-readers on the market, and I make no claim that the Kindle is the best, merely the one I know – they make it easy to read what you might not otherwise read. There may be many readers who, after a hard day’s work, a tedious journey home and a trip to the supermarket, will set out to their local library to read Gibbon. Others, like me, will not. But if Gibbon has swooshed onto our Kindle for nothing, we lesser beings may, perhaps, dip into it. I haven’t yet, but I have started reading Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia, of which I read a few many years ago when I was too young to appreciate them. Would I have gone especially to the library to find them, assuming my local library hadn’t long ago replaced them with worthy biographies of Mary Seacole? Probably not, but that swoosh, and that £0.00, did the trick.  They may also do the trick for schoolchildren failed by our dumbed-down education system. At school they are taught Diversity Studies by teachers who can barely write, but if they have a Kindle with all the classics, they may yet manage to educate themselves.

Then there’s re-reading. Re-reading a great novel – bringing to it what you have learned or experienced since you last read it – can be just as important as reading another one. Perhaps you never owned a copy of a book you once read, or no longer have one. Perhaps your books are in storage or propping up a rickety cupboard.  Somebody, somewhere, perhaps has a case similar to mine: when I moved house I packed all my books in boxes, all piled up on top of each other. I need to unpack them but have no bookshelves. Before I can get bookshelves I need to get the room decorated. Before I can get the room decorated I need to save up.  No excuse, I know, but to a procrastinator, lethal.  Now, with a swoosh, I can get them on my Kindle – thinking outside the box, you might say – and use the boxes to put things on. Hand-held portable electronic reading devices do not furnish a room, but they let you use your books as furniture.

It would be better, of course, to get myself organised, get on with the decorating and unpack my books. I’ve missed them.  I like the feel of a book, and the smell – and the fact that you can read it in the bath. Kindle-sceptics have raised other objections. Here is A. N. Wilson:

Could I […] become a Kindle-person? When the alarm clock wakes me in the black morning, will the little pile of books at my bedside become a thing of the past as I reach for the electronic lump?

One thing to be said in its favour is that the Kindle is not a scroll but a codex. One of the greatest changes in the reading habits of the human race happened some time in the second century when manuscripts stopped being rolls and turned into what we would nowadays recognise as a book – the codex with pages you could turn. Computers follow the pattern of the pre-second century, in that you have to scroll down to read their text.

There is nothing new under The Sun – available for downloading on your Kindle right now.

Kindles flip from page to page. Presumably you can flip back a page, but even if you can do so in seconds, this will be longer than the split second that it takes us to turn back a page when you want to check the name of a character in a novel or to refresh your memory of who is speaking.

If you are reading poetry, of course, you will be flipping backwards and forwards all the time. I wonder how many poems have been included in the 90,000 ready-downloaded books for the Kindle.

Something tells me that I am not going to ask Father Christmas for a Kindle, and I do not think it is just because I am an old fuddy-duddy. The book, in codex shape, really was a brilliant invention. And after the century of Gutenberg and Caxton there really was no looking back.

One of the books for which I scrabble in the dark on winter mornings is Luther's translation of the Bible. I read it because I am learning German. I read it for lots of reasons. As I hold the small volume in my hands and read it by torchlight, I sometimes stop reading and reflect upon the revolutionary effect that these very words, in book form, had upon the world, as, all over Germany, and eventually Europe, men and women began to read the Bible to themselves.

Naturally, they could read it on a Kindle. But there is a peculiar intimacy about the silent, still code of the printed page. It is simply you and it, with no electric battery, no lit-up screen, no Charlie Tritschler trying to kindle something within me. The birth of Protestantism would not have happened without the prior birth of printing, which immediately established a private liberation to the human race.

Alone with my book, I am impregnable. It beats any drug, and it is so cheap. Eyes do the scrolling, and you do not need to recharge their batteries. As for reading a newspaper on a Kindle – how do you scribble telephone numbers on it, or half-finish the crossword?

And wouldn't it be awful if a rival kindled the flames of an old quarrel by uploading a note with a subtle rude message? Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. Damn it and blast it, my battery has gone.

No, you can’t scribble phone numbers or half-finish the crossword, but some of Wilson’s criticisms, which referred to the previous version of the e-reader, are open to question.  The current version is very light, the pages “turn” in a split second, and the battery lasts up to a month. There is no “lit-up screen”; in fact the appearance is of a good quality paper and ink, and it is easier on the eye than many cheap books.  As for the “silent, still code of the printed page”, an e-reader does not, and should not, feel like a computer. Like a slate, perhaps one of those “magic slates” from my childhood,  the Kindle is as silent and still as a real book; there are no visible hyperlinks (unless you choose to activate them to look up a word in the dictionary) or winking message reminders. The device is plain, dull and austere. Journalist Johann Hari writes of books being needed “more than ever in an age of distraction”, but how distracting is a grey frame around a page? Less so, I would have thought, than gilt-edged pages or a leather binding – on the contrary, it is just you and the words.

Like a book, the Kindle is a codex, as Wilson acknowledges. If you put it inside its cover, it feels like a book – at least like a ring binder or a diary. Sooner or later, it could become even more like a book, with two screens for pages, left and right. It will be even lighter, with the battery lasting pretty much for ever, like a watch battery. Will it replace books? No, it will become one.  Newsbiscuit has a satirical take on this:

Kindle have revealed plans for their next generation platform aimed at traditional book readers who have so far proved to be resistant to the increasingly popular portable e-book reader. More formally known as DE, the dog-eared version of the Kindle has been designed following extensive market research with focus groups of reluctant converts to the new technology.

In a contrast to the sleek lines of the current version the DE has been fashioned from high performance materials to provide a shabby looking player with creased corners, giving the reader the comfortable impression that their book is a well-thumbed edition. This blends seamlessly with the tea and coffee stains that appear randomly on the e-pages.


Prototypes of the DE have been a huge success with focus group users, although some appear to have forgotten the principle behind the e-book. One tester was so pleased with the battered and creased DE that he asked for a dozen of them ‘to start his collection off.’

And if they end up propping up a table leg, we will know that the e-reader is here to stay. Readers of New English Review magazine are no strangers to technology; to reward you, we are working on a virtual ring binder in which to keep all your back copies.

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