There are about a thousand books in our library. I know it because my mother has found some kind of freeware programme where you can enter the title, author, nationality, and translation, you can make researches, order your books by publication date or title, print it all out and much more. Before I started writing I checked: there are no e-books.
And yet, we have lots of them: all those I’ve accumulated ever since I bought an e-book reader 4 years ago, plus all my mother’s to whom I gave a Kobo e-reader a year later. She uses it regularly, she even lists all of its qualities: practical, light, it’s great in bed because you can stay in the weirdest positions with no difficulty at all. She read Bolaño’s 2666 on her Kobo: every time we spot that huge volume in a bookshop she declares herself a lucky woman. And yet, if you look for 2666 in the family’s book list you’re not going to find it. There, I thought: that’s how you realise my mother’s seventy years old. She has realised a certain kind of technology (the list-generating programme or her Kobo) is making her life easier, but that same technology is struggling to make its way to a deeper level. I thought my mother didn’t really feel like she actually had those books because, despite the act of buying them, she doesn’t have any proper object and she evidently needs a physical object in her hands to mention it among her belongings.
I wrote her on Telegram, pretending I hadn’t thought about it that much.
«Are there e-books in the book list? I’m looking for something.»
«No, I haven’t updated it in ages.»
«Ok, but when you do that are you going to log in all your e-books?»
«Yes. You don’t think I should?»
I told her I was writing about print and digital books. I had taken for granted that she preferred the former and, had I not asked her, I would have attributed her ideas that don’t actually belong to her. She asked me, and I quote: «Doesn’t owning a book mean being able to consult it?»
Yes, mum, but now you’re giving me a hard time. I realise that even now – after years spent using an e-reader – I only buy a digital book if there’s some kind of advantage to it. I bought e-books because they were much cheaper than paperbacks or because they were free, or I wanted to read that book immediately, or because I didn’t know whether I was going to like that book and it would have been a less expensive risk to take. I keep track of the titles I find interesting and that I’d like to buy: I could buy them right away in an online store, but I rarely do it if it’s not a matter of urgency or a cheap buy.
This just doesn’t make sense, for the aim is to read the book I’m interested in at that specific moment. And if I’m okay with spending 19€ in a bookshop then I should be okay with spending 9,90€ for an e-book. Yet, most of the time 9,90€ is too much money. My mother is way more chilled about this. She thinks less and reads more, whereas I’m even here writing about it. One day she bought 2666 and read it. Whenever she’s going to update that book list she’ll add it just like she added the books we have in our living room because it’s ours and we can consult it. I checked: the e-book of 2666 is not much cheaper than the print version, I don’t think I would have bought it.
I convince myself that the possibility of a choice gives my mind the certainty that one option is certainly preferable to the other one. Therefore, I need to evaluate what I’m buying, what I’m going to bring home with me, how long it’ll last. Just like when I’m in front of synthetic shirts and silk shirts: if I have to choose then there will be pros and cons, if it’s cheaper it’s of poor quality, if it’s only a bit cheaper I’m not going to buy it. There’s no way out.
I have to admit that’s not always the case. When I had no choice I didn’t worry at all. Some publishers make e-books exclusively: proceed to checkout. Some magazines are only digital: proceed to checkout. It was only in these cases that I thought about the digital version of something as it truly is: a technology that cuts certain production costs. I – as a user – get a product which would be the same – in the terms of content and quality – were it written on a slab of stone. Equally bad or equally good, of course. I never thought the independent magazine that only publishes digitally was crappier or its contents plainer or its editorial choices more superficial due to its being exclusively digital. Sure, it could be, but that’s the risk you have to consider whenever you buy anything at all. How can the means have any influence on that risk? Or rather, I’m sure I wouldn’t have read something good I’ve read because most probably those who put it together couldn’t afford to print it and distribute it traditionally. I’m part of the editorial staff of a literary magazine; our digital issues are as hard to make as if they had to be printed – and we do print them, with additional costs and problems.
I thing we keep missing the point here. The point is not – as it may seem according to daily statistics – whether it’s better to buy the print or digital copy of War and Peace or how many people buy one version over the other. As I’m writing, the e-book of War and Peace costs from 0,99 cents to 4,99€. Perhaps many would prefer it, at least due to its cheaper price and little space required. But it doesn’t make much difference and I don’t think this sort of data gives us any interesting talking point. Just buy whichever version you please.
But: how many people choose to publish only digitally and why do they do that? How large is their reading public? The match is not print vs. digital copy of the same text, but those who print on paper – and always will – vs. those who have chosen the new road, drifting away from the old one or never having even taken it. The former produce digital versions of texts which would be printed on paper anyway, the latter think digitally and aim at a reading public who vastly uses technology – otherwise they wouldn’t enjoy their products.
Do those who create culture this way and those who enjoy it represent the majority of people? Do they have a fair importance in our literary and cultural world? I’m going to say no, not yet, for many still think that digital versions are just an option and that paper is right there as a guarantee. But that’s exactly my point: we’re actors in a digital culture whenever we interact with products that were born that way and that were created to exist only in that form. If we’re faced with a product carrying those features we can’t think of the economical gain or urgency or advantage, for there is no term of comparison, there isn’t a more traditional version of it in our mind. We’ll think of the product itself, of its content, its originality, its aesthetic value. That is, we’ll do exactly what we’ve been doing in bookshops while standing in front of dozens of volumes. But in this case we’ll have at hand a kind of technology that allows us to create different, interactive, low-cost, maybe even independent contents…who knows. I believe it makes sense to talk about digital readers and paper readers in those terms, then it’s worth doing statistics, counting how many are on each side.
I’m on both sides, but I prefer feeling 100% digital, not having that paper life jacket, not being able to make comparisons, not choosing according to my needs.
My mother is only partially a digital reader. The kind of reading she does with her Kobo e-reader is only a more modern version of traditional reading. At least up until this moment.
I think the time has come for me to give her a subscription to a digital only magazine or a text only available as an e-book. Then we’ll see if she’ll renew it or if she’ll complain about the price or if she’ll look for other texts by the same author in a bookshop or if, most probably, she won’t bat an eye and keep on reading undisturbed.
Born in Naples in 1984, Marianna already had glasses on. She distinguishes herself in the fight against contact lens wearers. She once screamed at the sky “If I can’t be a writer I don’t care about anything, I’ll do any kind of job.” She does in fact have some kind of job. She writes nice things – such as this biography – on Cose che non esistono.