When eReaders first descended upon the market, I was highly suspicious of them. I saw them as gimmicky, as the book industry equivalent of 3D, and I railed about them in a long post about how they would never replace the printed book and how horrible they were.
That was about eight years ago. Now, I own an eReader and I adore it. The sea change in attitude I'll get to in a moment, but needless to say that my accusation that eReaders were gimmicky was far from the truth. Really, the eReader does for books what MP3 players did for music.
Except...not quite. I still own and buy printed books. I'm not alone in this. In the past couple of years, eReaders and eBooks have hit an invisible ceiling in sales (or slowed at best), while printed books are enjoying a bounce back in popularity. Indeed, the vast majority of people who actively use eReaders still actively buy and read printed books.
So why is that? I think it's safe to say that the digital era has resulted in many people not owning a single CD, or at best consigning their collection to a dusty attic because they don't have the heart to throw them away. Same is true for movies. And yet having a healthy-sized bookshelf around the house is still common. And lest we forget, books are big, bulky space-eaters compared to CDs and even DVDs.
It seems the world has come to the same conclusion that I did: while eReaders do in fact have many advantages over their paper cousins, there is just no replacing the Real McCoy.
Well, let's look at the advantages of the eReader first. They are many: They're the size of a book, but much thinner and lighter, but they can hold hundreds upon hundreds of novels. For portability' sake that is incredible: tossing an e-Reader into your suitcase or briefcase is tossing in a whole library of reading. E-readers also offer up other options such as increasing font size or font type - great for those with poor eyesight. Straight up eReaders don't have a backlight either, meaning they mimic the look of paper too, reducing eye strain to the point that it's basically no worse than an actual book. And if you have an eReader that also has other capabilities, such as the Amazon Kindle or even an eBook app on a smartphone or tablet, it makes for smooth integration into a hectic lifestyle, rather fumbling for a different device when you want to listen to music or answer messages.
Pretty impressive stuff, overall. So with all of these advantages, why are sales in the printed book so robust?
Well, with other mediums like music or movies, these are forms of entertainment which have always required an extra piece of equipment with which you enjoy it. Music went from vinyl player to CD player to MP3 player. Movies went from VHS player to DVD player to Blu-ray player. Basically, the advancement in technology didn't make consumption of the media any more or less complicated: there has always been that extra layer of equipment needed. Even now, with everything streamable and available with nothing more than an Internet connection, a device to play it on is still required.
Not so with books. A book is a self-contained form of entertainment, requiring nothing more than itself to enjoy it. Okay, sure, we could get pedantic and say that working knowledge of the language is still needed, but that is also true of everything else in life. The fact is that you can walk into a bookstore right now, pick up a book and enjoy it straightaway. You don't need to plug it in to a player for that.
For eReaders, however, you do have that extra layer. For all of the benefits that eReaders bring to the table, there's no getting around the fact that they do add an extra layer of complexity, a barrier between you and the book.
Now you might be thinking, "It's not a big deal, having to boot up an eReader to read isn't that inconvenient." True. But think about it: when was the last time you had a piece of technology become widespread in usage despite being less convenient compared to its predecessor? This is the reason why HD TV is now widespread, and will soon be followed by 4K (because using a HD TV is just as easy as the TVs that preceded it), while 3D will never become widespread. Why? Because you need to put on a pair of special glasses. Just that little extra blip of extra inconvenience plays a massive part in the adoption rate of new tech and new mediums. We humans are hard wired to find the easiest, more streamlined route to results. Any extra detours to get there will either get ironed out or we'll give up on it altogether. And this is the main reason why eReaders won't be worrying brick and mortar bookstores any time soon.
On top of this, the eReader may successfully mimic the look and feel of a real book, but there's no getting around the fact that it's an electronic device. It runs out of batteries sometimes, something a physical book never has to worry about. And if you drop a book in a bath, no big deal: just leave it to dry or at worst just spend a bit more money on a new copy. Annoying, sure, but nowhere near as annoying as dropping an eReader in the water and having to shell out for a brand new one for much higher price.
And let's be perfectly honest here: we all just love the look and feel of a real book. They are precious things. The pleasing sensation of turning the page, the smell of new paper (or old, for that matter), is just something an eReader cannot replicate. And how can we treasure data files and pass on our beloved stories to our children when they don't physically exist?
Don't get me wrong, I have long had my mind changed by eReaders, and they are wonderful, brilliant things. But the hardbacks and paperbacks are going nowhere. And why would we want them to? You can rip music and movies to a PC and save space in your record collection and movie library, but a bookshelf wouldn't be a bookshelf without books!
I'm not saying anything new when I say that there are books that transcend age. We've all known for a long time that there are many excellent stories shelved in the children's section which can be placed in a discerning adult's lap and have an equally strong impact on them, perhaps even more so. I challenge anyone to argue that The Boy In Striped Pyjamas is just for kids.
I think this phenomenon can be split into two sub-categories. There are the books which are for all intents and purposes absolutely children's books that provide a sense of nostalgia and escapism for adults (which Harry Potter provides to an extent with its old-fashioned school setting), while the other type are the books which simply break down all feeble attempts at pigeon-holing to an audience and age range. Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver is one of the latter.
Now, before I give the synopsis of this story, I will say that I'm about to mention some things that sound like spoilers, but in actual fact this happens right within the opening paragraphs. Still, you have been warned!
Wolf Brother is set in the Stone Age some 6000 years ago, and tells the story of a young boy called Torak. He and his father were attacked by a bear (or is it?), which kills his father. Alone and terrified, Torak must fend for himself in the wild. But he soon befriends a wolf cub. Together they travel the land, learning about a growing and mysterious evil while being stalked by it.
Wolf Brother might just be one of the most well-realized worlds of fiction I've ever read. It's clear from the get go that Paver researched this first hand, not just from secondhand sources, by the way she pulls on all of the senses in her writing. Evocations of smell, sounds, touch and taste occupy the world just as much as sights, bringing a sense of immersive sharpness to it all. Paver is also a very tight, taut author: no word is wasted or superfluous. Everything either advances plot, builds character or deepens the atmosphere. It makes for an intense, almost visceral read. It doesn't hurt that the story itself is absolutely cracking as well!
But most impressive of all is the ingenious balancing act that Paver pulls off. This is clearly the Stone Age, right? But is it true-to-life Stone Age? Well, at first glance you'd say no: there's talk of magic and the supernaturial, after all. But is it real magic, or just superstition? Paver plays a balancing act by never really committing to either: it's down to the reader to interpret. Is that red moon really red? Or is it a lunar eclipse? It's up to you!
And that's one of the finest hallmarks of a book that extends across the ages: this elbow room for the reader to decide what they think is happening and what it means. This multilayered writing is extremely tricky to pull off, but when it works it results in that magical kind of story that you can read as a child and as an adult and feel as though you have experienced two different stories. It is the sign of a highly skilled author, which Paver definitely is.
Wolf Brother is an all around wonderful read, and the reasons to go and grab it right now are multiple. There are basically no reasons to avoid it...including how old you are.
Off the Shelf
Here I share my ideas, musings and advice on the writing process. I also analyse some of my own writing for examples to show how I work.
Here I will show off of some of my favorite good and great stories, gushing lovingly over why I adore them and why you should too. I will also show you the other side of the spectrum: bad examples of stories and what we can learn from them.