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06/12/2010

Me and my Kindle

Author, retired German Literature professor and enthusiastic ebook convert Ruth Klüger leads the way into the almost weightless future of reading.

Wherever there is talk about the business of literature these days – at book fairs, publishers' parties, among the editors of newspapers and magazines – you can hear discussions of electronic reading, a development which is about to engulf us like a tsunami. Mostly this is followed by soothing disclaimers: these products are not as good as our old trusty paper and won't replace the book as we know it in the near future or at all. The printed book will triumph in spite of progressive digitalization.

Let me confess right away that I am on the other side of the issue, I am an enthusiastic ebook convert, in my case it the Kindle, so beloved in America.

This confession might be surprising, coming, as it does, from a dyed in the wool reader who is nearing her ninth decade and who has been consuming the printed word like a kind of drug since she was six.

If we are honest we have to admit that books are just not all that comfortable to read. In the past people often used to read standing or walking (think of the famous scene in Hamlet where the reading hero is interrupted by an importunate Polonius), but today we tend to read in a position of rest. You start on your belly or lying on your side, in a soft chair with your feet up or on the floor with crossed legs or with a firm back rest and your feet on the desk. One leg goes to sleep, or needs to be stretched after sitting in the position too long. Often the book is too small or too big or too heavy, the print too weak or too bold, the lines too close together or the pages too thin. This is where the ebook comes in handy.

The electronic reading revolution among the wider public has, of course, been well underway for quite a while, what with computers and the Internet, but for your average reader, like myself, it has only just started to get interesting. And yet I am troubled by the ease with which I have made this new, how should I describe it? perhaps "writing mediation system", my own. Because I am a book worm, and until now I have only consumed this book drug, which is actually a reading drug, in the form of paper, and I am so helplessly addicted hat I could not imagine a worse scenario than the global destruction of reading glasses, even if I were to be given a slave in exchange, who would read to me 24 hours a day and could read as beautifully as Sheherezade personally. The longer I use the ebook, the clearer it becomes that it 's not the packaging that I like - the cover and the flutter of pages – so much as the contents. Not that I want to throw away all my books, they will stay on their shelves where they define me for visitors much more than the carpet or the sofa. But the desire to buy new ones has decreased, whereas I am impulsively snapping up ever more electronic reading material

On the other hand, you don't really own it, you can't give it away or lend it out And what about storing it reading it later? Electronic data storage methods age so quickly that my son can no longer use the Encyclopaedia Britannica on CD-ROM which I gave him ten years ago, whereas a book, he says indignantly, can still be taken down from the shelf and read fifty years later. As you see, the generations shift sides: The old mother raves about the digital typeface and the child defends the printed medium.

When you can carry around a library, literally thousands of books, almost weightlessly, you won't want to spend a fortune on it in order to display in on the shelf. As a student, like so many others, I scraped together my pennies to have the classics in my apartment, for example the treasured Hamburg Goethe edition (which was expensive and is now outdated). Today students can download their Goethe for free, perhapt not the best scholarly edition but one that is perfectly acceptable for reading purposes. Actually, they have been able to do this for quite some time, but now they no longer have to sit at the computer to read "Faust" but can take it wherever they want. The advantage is so obvious that there is no point deliberating whether or not we welcome the revolution, it will happen, it is already happening.

The book as we know it has many defenders, among them some of our best writers. One of them being Umberto Eco, who recently said: "The developments around the book as object have not been able to change its function or uses in the last 500 years. The book is like the spoon, the hammer, the wheel or the scissors: once these things are invented, you cannot make them better than they already are. There is nothing to improve in a spoon. (I personally like the comparison with the scissors. That startled me. Everyone knows about the wheel. But I had never stopped to think about the perfection of a pair of scissors.) But the weak link in his argument comes right at the start. He admits that the book, as we know it, is only 500 years old. Of course he doesn't say "only", no, his emphasis is trying to emphasize the hoary age of the book.

But people were reading and writing thousands of years before, and what they were reading was great literature and, incidentally, a number of holy scriptures as well. No need for book covers, or even paper. So why should this age old written tradition be dependent on a method of conservation which only got a foothold in the modern era?

This is how it happened: A new product appeared at the fairs, small hand-sized books containing the craziest, most moving and fantastic stories, adventures with monsters, tear jerkers, romance, most of them plagiarising medieval poetry but all in prose and sensational in content - and affordably priced. The new capitalists of these mass products were printers, book dealers and publishers in one and dragged their wares in barrels to the buyers. There was only one hitch: you had to be able to read. And who but the clergy had this skill? Suddenly in illiterate Europe there was a good reason to learn the alphabet.

Scribes were hired to write gripping stories for ordinary readers, including women. They worked fast and not particularly carefully and brought an inferior quality literature into the world, known as folkbooks (analagous to folksongs), chapbooks in England. Nowadays we treat them with great respect, because they hail from the days of the incunabula. It's a case of judging the content by the packaging. To aid the untrained readers, woodcuts helped explain the text and continued their career in children's books. I believe that these chapbooks did as much for increasing the literacy of the population as Luther's Bible translation, which usually gets all the credit. To be sure, readers who could afford the new luxury belonged to the middle and upper classes of society and were not poor, but they did include women whose monotonous lives were soon made much more entertaining thanks to printed literature. Thus, in the 16th century the first great shift from religious and Latin writings to what we call belles lettres took place. There was no talk of poetry and even edification was secondary. This was about entertainment.

The second shift in our modern culture of reading came in the 18th and beginning of the 19th century with industrialization, which included the industrialization of literature. Books dropped in price and it wasn't even necessary to buy them because there were reading circles and rental libraries and illiteracy disappeared, even among the poor, and men started to complain that women spent too much time with their noses in novels instead of saucepans, and literary criticism was born. Literature was divided into high and low and there were professional writers who wrote popular literature and had no aspiration to become immortal. The age of kitsch and higher education has arrived, both dependent on the book. The culture of reading, as we know and cherish it, the lonely, private pleasure of quiet perusal, had begun.

In the 20th century, cinema along came along, and film and TV satiated us with their story telling. And yet they have enriched literature as well as our literary sensibilities, not least because they, too, are dependent on written texts. They have strengthened, not underminded our love of reading. The medium is the message? No at all. The real thing is the alphabet, the written word. That is what we mean when we say "book". In this sense we can indeed predict a long and glorious future for the book in its many shapes and metamorphoses.

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Ruth Kluger is a retired professor of German literature and author of several books. She was born in 1931 in Vienna and lives in California. This year Zsolnay published her latest volume "Was Frauen schreiben" (what women write). The above text is a shortened version of her opening speech at the Bookfair Basel that was originally published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 22 November 2010
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