Frank (b.1938): Oh no, no… I’ve always read for pleasure. I’ve done that the whole of my life. Still do… I’ve actually bought a Kindle now.
Books or Kindle? Kindle or books? The debate staggers on.[i] (I prefer the real thing, as a glance at my home would show you. But I’m very happy to go digital when travelling, whether on holiday or on a bus, and the Kindle is a good way of reading books I don’t want taking up precious shelf space.)
Here is what Reading Sheffield interviewees, born between 1923 and 1950, have to say. (Since we are interested in 20th century reading, we don’t generally ask about e-readers, but sometimes they come up.) This is not by the way a scientific survey on any terms.
Not everyone is open to the idea:
Anne (b. 1944): Ohh, I couldn’t be doing with that! … I don’t know. It’s electric, int it? I’m allergic to anything electric.
But those who’ve bought (or been given) a Kindle appreciate the convenience.
Christine (b. 1940): Yes. I’m afraid I’ve got a Kindle now as well because we go to France and I used to take ten books in the car – and now I get the Kindle, sit in the garden in France and bingo! … I still prefer a book. I only take the Kindle when we go away and when you’re in France it saves you, well you have to take books with you because it’s difficult to find English books in France.
For one interviewee the Kindle gives her family the chance to share and even to read books they may not choose for themselves:
Mavis (b. 1937): … there were five of us on one Kindle ownership and you can get five copies of a book, people can use the same book. So my son bought his three children, two of who are adults, and his father a Kindle. Mine’s not on that because I had mine first but those five have back copies of probably a 100-odd books now because every time any one of the five adds a book it’s available to all the others. … I pinch my husband’s [Kindle] and let him have mine on occasions because I don’t have access to these. I swap with my daughter who doesn’t have a Kindle as well… We tend to have, if not similar tastes, sufficiently similar for it to be things you wouldn’t have chosen yourself but when you pick it up and read it you think ‘Ah’. … my granddaughter came and said, ‘Ooh, can I have that after you?’ and I said ‘No, but you can have it after your aunt.’ So there’s quite a … five or six of us.
The Kindle (NotFromUtrecht) (Own work) (Creative Commons licence)
We ask if owning a Kindle changes reading habits.
Mavis: No. I look for what I want. Sometimes I don’t find it. It does mean that occasionally I’ll buy books…. I still tend, if something looks as if it will be of real interest, I still tend to buy a book, specially if I can get it when it’s just published.
E-readers can take some getting used to.
Mary (b. 1923): I tell you what I have got, I have got a Kindle. [The book I’m reading is] very strangely written and I can’t find out who’s written it because I don’t know quite how to go back and then go forwards. It’s my son’s partner, she gave [the Kindle] me. … I can get big print you see. It is small and that is as much as my eye will take. …
Chris (b. 1939): I was given a Kindle for Christmas, which I won’t say I’m struggling with, I’m quite enjoying so I suppose that counts as a book. It’s quite handy though I guess for taking on holiday. The one thing I’m not too keen on, you can’t, well I haven’t found a way of flipping from looking back 27 pages to find what went before. … I’m not very technological.
There’s the business of finding books you want:
Chris: Well I haven’t loaded it up because the ones that you get free are not necessarily the books that I want to read anyway. On the basis that I find looking for a specific author and I find they don’t come free.
Kindles or books, there’s still a lot of rubbish published.
Mary: You can get any book on that. Oh I tell you what the first one that was on it, I don’t recommend it to anybody, was the Hundred Shades of Grey or Fifty Shades of Grey? You have never read such tripe! I managed one, two chapters. It isn’t even well written. … I don’t mind sex if it’s well written!
For some people, the e-reader cannot compete. It’s all about the physical quality of books.
Judith (b. 1939): And I’ve always had this ingrained, you know, get-me-a-book kind of thing. I don’t even want to have a Kindle or anything, because I like the feel of a book…
Peter (b. 1930): No. I think, it sounds a bit smug this, I think the book trade is suffering from unfair competition particularly with these electronic books and whatever so I just do my little bit. If there’s a book I like, I buy it from the bookshop.
No, I’ve seen [Kindles]. I can sit for hours with a book in my hand. I find it very difficult to sit for more than about a quarter of an hour with a screen. That’s probably an age thing, I don’t know. … I like the feeling of a book.
Josie (b. 1942): I’ve got one. I won’t use it. I’ve inherited it from my husband and until I get too feeble to turn a book and my eyesight’s too bad that I can’t see there’s nothing like having a book in your hands. Seeing it and feeling it and turning the pages, looking how much you’ve got left to read … no, I’ve never touched it. I’ve no desire at all. I can see when you go on holiday instead of taking twelve books with you if you’re flying, a Kindle would be handy.
I just don’t know [what it is about the actual physical feel of the book]. It’s just comforting, isn’t it? It’s like you’re touching … I love it, I just love it. … It’s quite a phobia when you think about it. I didn’t realise I was this bad.
Kindles may be light and slim but for our readers swiping lacks the pleasure of turning pages, and the faint plastic/metallic smell is not to be compared to the woodiness of paper. (I do know Kindle owners who love their actual devices, who are distressed if they have to change or send them away for repair.)
In the end e-readers generate mixed feelings. There is uncertainty about the ability to make them work, but also interest in the convenience they offer. But for some of our readers, Kindles just don’t feel right.
Jude (b. 1950): Erm, not at the moment I wouldn’t [get a Kindle]. If I went travelling I would actually … I wanted a long read but at the moment, I quite like the pleasure of… A book, yes.
(With thanks to Reading Sheffield colleague Mary for gathering the information.)
[i] E-readers may already be yesterday’s technology. In 2015, in the USA, for example, 19 per cent of adults reported owning an e-reader, down from 32 per cent in early 2014. But of course many people read books on their smartphones or tablets.