The problem with e-books…

…is the pencil.

You see, I read with a pencil in hand.

Now, it’s true, I don’t read much fiction.

(Okay, I hardly read any fiction whatsoever, and that fiction which I do read tends to have been written by P.G. Wodehouse.  Nor is it the first time I will have encountered his elevating and effervescent prose, his wry characterisations and delightful non-plots.)

However, all the rest of the time, I read history and/or biography. 

And it is at these times that I read with a pencil in hand.  And with this pencil, I underline and make notes in the margins.

(Even when it’s a rubbish book.)

I underline names and dates, I notate the text, I make comments.  (Yes, sometimes like “WRONG!”)

…all so that when I return to the text (which I undoubtedly do when I’m working on a novel) I can easily find the date when a thing happened, or trace through the text an individual’s movements, or nail down exactly who was at such and such a battle and how they died.

All these little details with which I concern myself when I’m constructing a novel.

I have on the shelves of my bookroom hundreds of books which have been so annotated.  They are a mine of information.  All of it read and commented upon by self.

I am currently finishing that weighty tome Rites of Peace:  The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna by Adam Zamoyski.  And, yes, there are few pages which are not scribbled upon by self, in some way or other.  But, for the most part, there are few virgin pages.  For the longer the text–this one is something like 571 pages–the more need for scribbled pointers so that I may find what I’m searching for at some future date.

And this is why I can’t see myself switching to e-books.  Not entirely.  Because not all books are meant to be read once and discarded.

Some books are meant to be read, studied, noted upon, reread and refered to an infinite number of times.  And during that process, all those scribbled pointers become waymarks and road signs.

Once read, the books sit upon the shelves of the bookroom, covering the walls, like a vast map of historical research, and I have only to look upon those shelves, upon the spines of all those books, to know where to find whatever I’m searching for.  Which again, I couldn’t do with a Kindle.

(I’d have to keep the titles of those hundreds of books in my head–now, we’re talking trouble…I’d be more muddled than I am now, heaven help me.  And that would be a problem.)

So whilst for many things I believe the e-book is the wave of the future–and don’t get me wrong, I think they can be fabulous–but don’t let’s throw out the book (and pencil) just yet.


8 comments on “The problem with e-books…

  1. Cheri Lasota says:

    It will be an age-old debate, but I rather hope that e-reader makers take these real concerns to heart and make e-books easier to annotate in the future. As an editor, I often wish I could edit on the go with my Kindle in hand. But it’s not easy enough…yet. I do think they’ll get there though. And the day is not far off.


    • M M Bennetts says:

      If the e-book solution is to provide me with one of those diddy little styluses such as the Royal Mail and UPS use to have me sign their electronic register–you know, the things that you sign across the screen and which makes your signature look like the drunken ramblings of a hyperactive ant–then I don’t see me turning in my pencil and paper books anytime soon. And history books also have a look up feature–it’s called the index. *wink*

  2. Remind me never to buy a second-hand book from you 🙂

  3. This is so true, I have been debating as to whether to nag and nag and nag my husband to buy me a kindle for my birthday or some such event but I just can’t tell if I would use it.

    You see, I love the feel of a book in hand, carrying it with you everywhere so it gets battered and dog eared and it’s truly your own, and even buying a second hand book, opening it and getting that wafted smell of the past or the inscription to someone long forgotten.

    I think I love the idea of an ebook reader, but you see, I love collecting books on my shelves, looking over them lovingly as though they are my mini kingdoms of escape. I just don’t think I’m ready to give that up yet, at least maybe I should say to my husband:

    “Yes darling, get me a kindle and that ebook I want, and while your at it, get me a hard copy too.”

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I think they are superb for commuters…all those books in the Kindle and the thing is so light to carry, so that no one’s bag is weighed down. Then too, so many classics, like by Dickens and Tolstoy, are available for Kindle for free, which again is superb. And for people who aren’t yet in houses or flats where there’s a lot of room for books, they can read to their hearts’ content without having to find space for all the books. But for research…give me the hard copy and a pencil.

  4. I agree whole-heartedly VR. My sentiments exactly.

  5. Jan E. Kuba van Bijnen says:

    Eventually I expect we ‘ll get somewhere, using e-books. Please bear in mind that this way of working with books is still very new.
    I read huge amount of books and I enjoy exploring new ways of reading and maintaining a personal library like I do now with e-books. I may even change some old habits of which I can’t remember why I had them anyway. 🙂

    Improvements are still made in making electronic notes in different types of e-book formats, like .pdf or epub. For the epub formats you ‘re already able to underline, select and scribble your notes anywhere on the page. A copy of the page with your notes will be stored on the system, while the original page remains clean. For your e-book management you might take a look at “Calibre”; a nice piece of opensource software which helps you to stay sane whilst trying to organise your collection.

    And if you do miss badly the way pages smell, we may have solution here

    • M M Bennetts says:

      There’s been an ongoing debate here in the UK about this with several old crusty writers–Penelope Lively included–aren’t against ebooks or Kindle and see most definitely see their uses, but also feel they are unlikely to ever rely on them for all their reading and research. Which is pretty much my position. I think they are tremendous for commuters, tremendous for travelling. In terms of the amount of research I do, not a chance.

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