You could dismiss this title as a fake question, since obviously it is unlikely that I’d write about the topic here, and still come up with a negative answer. But still, I feel it’s a question worth posing, if only for the issues it raises.

Books are customarily supposed to open new mental vistas for us, spark new trains of thought, stimulate the mind, and ultimately shape our development as thinking people. “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?” wrote Thoreau. That may seem very nebulous to the average genre fiction writer, publisher or reader, but if the medium itself can’t support such a purpose, then e-books are never going to be able to really stand in for their printed kin. So can e-books take up this role? Or is it inevitably linked to the solidity and permanence of print?

For a start, if not, why not? Well, one obvious factor is that very permanence—that physicality of printed books. lt’s the ability to physically grasp a work in the round, to peruse it at leisure, open it at a favorite page, judge how long you have to go before the end, really appreciate the whole presence of the work. Charles Lamb prized books “so long known to us that we know the typography of its blots and dog’s ears, and can trace the dirt in it.”

Now, I can accept that these are important secondary aspects of appreciating the whole architecture of a book—cues that we pick up on perhaps only half-consciously to help guide us through a work. And yet I would argue that they are only secondary; that e-books have other ways to achieve similar results: bookmarking or wordsearching, for instance—perhaps better in some contexts, but not in others. And all of these are a supplement to assimilating and understanding an argument, or appreciating the construction of a novel: They are not the means of understanding or appreciation per se. That is done by reading words, not books.

Books are a means of recording words and works, not the things themselves. In fact, they may distort our understanding of the original. The Iliad, for instance, was intended to be sung, not read. Shakespeare wrote for the stage, not the page. Even Dickens originally wrote many of his works to be read serially, just as you can only make full sense of the last frame of a page of Tintin by knowing how long the original readers would have had to wait for the next installment.

My problem with the whole digital versus print debate is that it takes attention away from the act of reading itself. For the print diehards, fetishizing books as objects can be a handy distraction from no longer really being able to value their contents. It’s hard to be a fine art dealer without at least looking at a picture, but all too easy to be a rare book collector without reading a word.

Personally, I can tell you that e-books can inspire. They certainly did me. To quote just a couple of examples, Neil Gaiman‘s American Gods and Charlie Stross’s Laundry Files series opened my eyes to fresh possibilities in fantasy and weird fiction, despite never even meeting my gaze on a page. I was absorbed in the imaginative worlds of those works as completely as I ever was in any print novel I ever opened. I actually read through China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and The Scar on a tiny phone screen, just as fully absorbed—and those are huge books. Peter Watt’s e-book of Blindsight sent me scrambling through his source materials, and still influences my thinking to this day. And the e-book version of Robert Aickman’s Cold Hand In Mine actually inspired me to write a complete novel.

l’m not pleading for the quality of those works: the novel still embarrasses me now. But if that isn’t a test of inspiration, then what is?

* * *

Follow us on Twitter @TeleRead
Join us at facebook.com/TeleRead


The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail newteleread@gmail.com.