For the majority of my nearly forty-three years, I have seen books as fragments of time. They would remind me of a place or a person, of an era of my life long gone. I also enjoyed displaying them in a look-how-much-I-read kind of way. Yes, I was that book snob and proud of it.
Five years ago I bought an e-reader. I bought it because the six bookshelves in my small house were jam packed and I had more stacked up on the floor and on my desk. I could not move for books.
I began a book cleanse. I started switching out print copies for ebooks. A lot were free because they were classics and out of copyright. The others it took me a while, and some I couldn’t find. But I slowly whittled everything down to one four foot bookcase. So it has stayed for the last year and a half. Every book I’ve bought during that time period was digital.
Then something odd happened. I started missing my print books. Sure, I’d bought a cover for my e-reader so it felt like a book in my hands without the horror of having to read the left-hand page. Aside: Does anyone else hate the left-hand page, or the right-hand page if you read in a language right to left? Something was missing. Was it the smell of print? Was it the feeling of turning a page? Perhaps the simple act of dog-earing a corner or slipping in a bookmark? It wasn’t any of these things.
I figured it out. I didn’t miss reading fiction in print form. I missed reading non-fiction in print form. I had a vast collection of non-fiction books on the topics I found interesting: archaeology, palaeopathology, mythology, the World Wars, history of Special Forces and covert operations, the dark underbelly of Victorian society, LGBTQ history, the American Civil War (particularly female soldiers), historical disasters both man-made and natural, adventurous expeditions that ended in tragedy (think the Donner party, the Greely Expedition, Burke and Wills, Dyatlov Pass), forensics, true crime and of course the craft of writing.
I continued my non-fiction obsession when I switched to my e-reader. But I felt constrained. Unless I transferred the book to my tablet, images were not always clear. I couldn’t write little notes down the side of the margin (I feel the add notes function is next to useless in e-readers because it is held in a separate location to where the note matters). I couldn’t stick little post-it markers in it (I have the same feeling about highlighting as I do about notes in e-readers). Taking notes and highlighting was a chore on an e-reader. I found myself writing things out in a separate notebook and carrying it around with me. If I was doing that, I may as well have been carrying a book!
There is a product on the market that would partly fulfil my fantasy of a cross between a tablet, an e-reader and a piece of paper and pen. It’s called Remarkable. You can annotate book pages in the margins, bring up a notepad and write with your hand resting on the surface (no need for an anti-fouling glove). You can even sketch. It has an incredibly quick response time between the stylus motion and the e-ink appearing. Unfortunately, it retails well beyond my current price range for a self-indulgent product. If I only want it and don’t need it, then it isn’t necessary. Moving house and marketing is more important right now. Therefore £679 on a luxury gadget (no matter how useful), has to take third place on my purchase list. Even the current sale price, while very tempting, pricks at my monetary conscience. Besides, the current version can’t translate handwritten text to type, so it’s not quite reached my expectations.
I have made a decision, a compromise if you will. I will buy and read fiction books electronically but will buy non-fiction books in print. I use a lot of my non-fiction material for researching story ideas, and there is just something about having a stack of books on my desk with notes sticking out everywhere that is comforting. Knowing I can grab the book I want and turn straight to a point of reference without having to navigate through a series of folders, file names and lists of other notes still works for me.
Until Remarkable (or something like it) improves to the point where it works like a database and I can do a keyword search on the handwritten notes jotted in the page margins, then it won’t really do what I want it to. That would be a great function. Imagine you had a dozen books loaded on a particular subject and had made consistent notes throughout. If you could then type in a couple of keywords and bring up a list of instances from all the books complete with citation ready references, that would be grand. What then if you could tap on a particular note and the page from the relevant book opened so you could read your note in context? That would be even better, particularly if you could then split the screen, open a little notepad, handwrite a sentence or two and automatically export it to a text file along with the citation. That’s writing a draft report or article without really writing one. It writes itself based on your note-taking. I’m dreaming several years down the line here, maybe more, but it’s fun.
I do realise I’ve gone around in a circle. I’ve got rid of my print books, missed them, made a concession to buy them again, and then fantasised about not using them. Call me crazy.
What do you think? Do you still stick with print? Do you dabble in both? Have you experienced a yearning for paper over e-ink? What about technologies such as Remarkable, are they a good idea or a gimmick? Let us know in the comments.
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