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Words on a page or on a screen – which one are you?

You browse on Amazon, or in a bookshop. You have shelves of books all over your home, or you have a slim device that carries your entire library. Which one are you? By Sian Powell.

The contrast was stark. There was a small part of my husband’s library of beloved books, packed into four waist-high cardboard packing cases. Heavy. Unwieldy. Smelling a bit of mould and silverfish. A bore when moving, particularly between countries.

Since we had moved from Sydney to Jakarta, back to Sydney, then to Bangkok to Hong Kong, and back to Sydney and finally back to Hong Kong, the packing case books were weighty evidence of his love for reading.

There on the floor in front of the packing cases, (artfully placed by me to highlight the difference) was a small silver iPod Touch, with my library in it.

In sheer reading terms, my library was much bigger than my husband’s, running to many hundreds of books. And of course, it was light-years more convenient. It’s far easier to slip an iPod into a pocket or a handbag than it is to get books out of bookshelves, stack them in boxes, hassle around with shippers and movers and customs agents, haul them through houses and unpack them all over again.

Sian Powell Sian Powell

Weighing perhaps a few ounces, my iPod was a breeze, as is any other similar device, or even a smartphone with a reading app.

Yes, a paper book has a certain romance. A well-thumbed hardback can have a historical patina, imbued with a musty reverence for times past, sometimes with inscriptions redolent of an earlier age – “Dearest Ethel, happy birthday from your mother, August 1934”. After all, there’s nothing very poetic about sitting in a bay window, while a piano tinkles nearby, intent on a small sliver of electronically-connected metal.

But reading is surely more than just books? It’s the words, stupid, as the Bill Clinton election team might have said.

However they are conveyed from the author’s mind to yours – it’s the ideas and the phrases that count, not their outer casing. “Real” book lovers don’t even bother countering this argument – they generally just shrug and turn to a much-loved book, wedged into a bookcase groaning with books already read and sooner or later to be read, muttering about soulless digital reading, and the real fear of library wipe-out due to electronic glitches and crashes.

Back when I was an adventurous kid, roaming the world in the days of poste restante letters and queues for pay phones, I used to yearn for books. It was only practical to carry three or at the most four in my knapsack, and I used to swap them or replace them as much as possible. Often, though, I was reduced to reading the same few again, and again, and again. One friend used to take a weighty book and rip off the read chapters as he went, so steadily reducing the weight of the single novel in his baggage.

These days, the sheer ease of reading on a device is seductive. I can hold a small paperback in one hand and, at a pinch, turn a page with my thumb. But a device is an easy one-hand hold, and a swipe of the thumb turns the page. No need to switch on a bedside light, either, which reduces marital friction for those of us who don’t sleep so well.

Device readers can roam electronic libraries full of free books – authors’ copyright expires after a while, letting readers explore the wonders of Sherlock Holmes, or Jane and Lizzie Bennet, or David Copperfield for no charge. There are even some newbie authors who self-publish their books online, hoping to attract a following.

Regarding the current angst over iPhone and iPad overuse, I don’t count reading on my device as screen time. There’s no interaction or frenzied clicking. I just turn the pages and read the words until I get to the end of the book – and that, after all, is what reading is all about.

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