Law Thirty-Six

You gotta go with what works

Unnatural obsessions with physical objects


A few days ago, Becky and I chanced upon The Town that Loves Books on BBC 4, accidentally re-opening our debate over the merits of physical, paper books versus e-Readers like Kindles. The TV programme centred on Hay-on-Wye, a town built around second hand bookshops and book festivals. That the town has come down against e-Readers is not surprising: there is no second hand trade in e-Books.

Becky must be the target reader that companies had in mind when they started marketing e-Readers. A prolific reader, she prefers buying books to borrowing them from a library. She travels with a book in her hand even if she’s just going round the corner to the shop, and who on longer trips will take a book, spare book and spare spare book.

We have a house full of books, proving the rule that the quantity of books in a house will increase to fill the available shelf space. No matter how quickly you screw wood to wall, there will always be that untidy pile of books that doesn’t fit on any of the shelves. Naïvely, I’d hoped that when shelf space ran out, this would act as some kind of brake on Becky’s book buying. I’ve learned.

For the sake of the remaining storage space in our house, I’ve been trying to convince her of the virtue of e-Books. There has been, to say the least, some resistance. Over the years, she’s fielded a number of arguments against Kindles and their like.

I might drop it in the bath

It’s entirely possible, yes. In our near fourteen years of marriage, Becky has dropped two books in the bath. One was a Zadie Smith book, hardback, dropped in the bath in a hotel in Bath.

Let’s ignore the fact that for less than five pounds you can get yourself a waterproof cover for your e-Reader. Let’s also ignore that there are companies out there that can make your Kindle waterproof to a depth of 210 feet – something I might mention to my mum, who sends her e-Reader for a spin in the washing machine with a regularity bordering on obsession.


One of the good things about e-Readers is that if you lose or damage the device, you don’t irretrievably lose your books. You buy another e-Reader and you download the books again. You don’t need to buy them all over again. So let’s do some maths.

The paperback version of Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man has a cover price of £8.99 and you can currently pick it up for £6.20 from Amazon. The Kindle edition is £3.99, so you’re going to save £2.21 on this book by buying it for the Kindle. With the basic Kindle currently costing £60, you can afford to drop one in the bath every 28 books and still come out on top. If you’re about to buy the excellent David Mitchell’s no doubt excellent forthcoming book The Bone Clocks, the Kindle version will save you £11.52 over the hardback edition – if you bought a Kindle and six similarly priced hardback books in electronic format, then ground your Kindle into dust by running over it repeatedly with a steam roller, you’d still be better off.

So the whole “I might drop it in the bath” argument isn’t going to wash.

It doesn’t feel like a real book. It doesn’t smell like a book

She wants to feel a book in her hand and turn its pages rather, not just swipe the screen. She wants a book that smells like a real book and doesn’t just smell of plastic. I use Becky as an example, but to be fair to her and to avoid any ritual beatings that may follow if she thinks I’m picking on her, this is a common objection to e-Readers, and it’s about the experience that people have when reading a book. If we’re talking about something like Damien Hirst’s A B C, I completely accept that the experience of reading this on an e-Reader would be nothing like the experience of reading a physical edition. Unsurprisingly, there is no Kindle edition available (although I have clicked the link to tell Amazon that I’m interested in a Kindle release. What can I say – little things amuse me).

Authors want readers to have a relationship with their books, but I suspect the relationship they’re thinking of is with the words inside the book, rather than a physical relationship with the packaging. When Haruki Murakami sits down to plan his next book, he decides to write a book that involves a man who lies on a sofa all day eating spaghetti and listening to jazz, a woman with strange ears who goes for walks on the motorway, and a cat that gets lost at the bottom of a well and gets sucked into another dimension. I don’t think he plans to write a book that will be released in a little box with two volumes, one red and one green. Generally speaking, the author is interested in the cover and binding because they set the tone for the words inside the book and help to market it.

If people really bought books because of the way they smelled or felt, Amazon would have found some way of previewing book odour over the Internet. You’d be offered books with a range of different smells: 1950s American pulp paperback, or newsprint flavour, or perhaps you’d get novelty books that smelled of vanilla or strawberry or tatami mats. What would you think of a book review that talked about what the pages felt like, whether the book was heavy enough in the hand, and what the smell of the book reminded the reviewer of, but didn’t mention anything about the words that the author used. Are writers just wasting time crafting the perfect sentence, tightening up plot and enriching their characters through successive drafts? Should they instead be seeing whether their book is better if it smells of lavender or if they print it on heavier paper? Would you shop in a book store that arranged its books by the colour of their covers or by size, where you went in and ordered two metres of blue hardbacks or half a kilo of B-format paperbacks?

People can’t see what you’re reading

This one is easily dealt with. They should ask.

I want people to be able to look at my book shelves and have a conversation with me about books

This argument is actually the same as the last one but with more words.

Going back to an earlier point, authors want readers to have a relationship with their books. Having people discuss an author’s work and their reaction to it is surely a good thing. Much can be learned about a person through scanning their bookshelf. This does seem to be a disadvantage of e-Readers, which hide away your electronic library within their digital interior. It’s one that’s easily solved, though. I have now posted a list of all the titles on my Kindle on the wall for all to see.

Book list

Hopefully, we can now close the book on this argument.


  1. Some interesting thoughts and well-reasoned arguments but you’re completely missing my point about the smell of books. I don’t want my books to smell of lavender, just books. And I also like the sound of books, that errrrkkk noise the paper makes when you open a new paperback for the first time.

  2. And the sound and smell of books is more important than the words? Surely you can make your own errrrkkk noise?

  3. I normally buy my books second hand for a penny.

  4. That also works.

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