A former student of mine was thinking of getting a Kindle recently, and asked her Facebook friends for views that might help her decide whether or not to buy one. Lots of them jumped in because they’d given one or been given one for Christmas, and they all said the same thing: they’re great, get one, I love it, you will too!
Well, I had to think about why I want to resist them for as long as possible, and in putting forward some counter arguments, I developed my gut feelings into something of a rant. It’s such fun, and it’s the first of the year…
First, I’ve always thought they’re just ugly, soulless things. Let’s face it, is anyone going to go in to a museum in 500 years and marvel at the beauty of a Gutenberg Kindle? Are there monks somewhere devoting their lives and ruining their eyesight to create the wonder of a Medieval Illuminated E-reader?
Can any sort of electronic device capture the real beauty of an art book that replicates great works of art on paper? One of my favourite books is a catalogue I got at the Rodin Museum in Paris in 2006 of his Cambodian Dancers paintings. It was a book I pored over: I stroked the glossy paper, stuck my nose between the sheets to smell that glorious new-book smell. That’s the thing: books are a complete sensory experience. The nicest thing an ex-pupil ever said to me was, “Thanks for everything, Mr Soltysek. Because of you, I still smell books before I buy them.”
And then, what about children’s pop up books? Even when e-readers are developed to include 3D holographic imaging, could they ever be as beautiful or as sensual as a jungle or a ship in full sail rising out of a gatefold spread?
But it’s what e-readers are designed to do that concerns me: they want to replace books, and one of the main reasons touted is that they save trees. Well, it’s not quite as simple as that: it never is when companies try to sell us new technology.
The carbon footprint of the average book’s manufacture is 4Kg. That’s a hefty whack of environmental damage. However, the carbon footprint of a Kindle’s manufacture is somewhere in the region of 30Kg, and its subsequent lifetime footprint is up to 160Kg. That’s the equivalent of 47.5 books.
In 2008, there were 338,000,000 books sold in the UK: that’s about 5.2 per person. So it would take around nine or ten years before there was a carbon footprint benefit. Of course, not everyone is going to buy a Kindle, just as not everyone buys books, and so my stats are no doubt wonky (I’m an English teacher, give me a break): but the environmental benefits of the e-reader are that not clear cut.
Then there’s the problem of resources used to make them. Books are made from either recycled paper or trees. One is good, and the other is good too. Trees are a renewable resource: for every tree cut down to make paper, we can plant three in its place, as one bog roll manufacturer proudly boasts. We should be planting more trees. But the resources to make a Kindle – hydrocarbons for the plastics, silicates for the glass – are non-renewable, exhaustible resources that can never be put back in the ground. In addition, there are extraordinarily rare materials used in the processor manufacture, and lithium used in the batteries. And at the end of a book’s life, it is bio-degradable; the Kindle is less so by several thousand years, and there’s the problem of toxicity from batteries and chemicals.
It’s the life of a book that swings it for me. In our libraries, we have books that are hundreds of years old still available to anyone with a membership card. What’s the life span of an e-reader? Are they being built with that longevity in mind? Of course not – we’ve already had several “generations” of the Kindle – and it’s doubtful if consumers will be happy with their 2011 model at the end of 2012, or 2013, or…
I’m by no means a technophobe, and in the last twelve years have changed my home computer three times, my work desktop three times and my laptop four times. And yes, I feel guilty. And despite always saying all a mobile phone needs to do is make calls and send texts, I bought my first Android smart phone last year, and am too stupid to use it. So given how seductive technology upgrades are and given how aggressively manufacturers promote the latest product and ensure that older products are obsolete by withdrawing support, it’s difficult to see how any Kindle buyer will ever make a positive environmental impact by switching from paper to an e-reader they will probably replace every three years as new functionality is added.
I was in a meeting just before Christmas. There were perhaps forty people in the room. I had a library book in my bag. I could return it to the library, and all forty could then have access to that book. Forty uses for 4KG of carbon footprint. If the library had an e-lending facility – and I don’t know if such things are possible – each of those forty people would need a Kindle to read it. That’s 1200 KG of carbon footprint to access the same text. The only advantage of the Kindle would be that they would all have access to the book at the same time – no waiting for it to be returned, and I’m hopeless at returning books; but is that a good enough reason for such an environmental impact? Are we so desperately attached to the modern idea of convenience? Do we all suffer from I want it now! syndrome?
When I buy a book, I read it. It then languishes on my shelf for a while before I take it to the charity shop. I then imagine it being bought and enjoyed by a wee old woman, who perhaps passes it to her daughter, who then gives it to her friend, who then donates it to a charity which ships books to Africa where a mother who will never be able to afford a Kindle can read it to her child. That’s a wholly romantic fantasy – but books are romantic fantasies. E-readers, on the other hand, are a consumer product.
So, no thanks. I’ll stick to books, and to crinkly paper that crackles when you flex the spine and has texture and smells of… something. Anything. And no, a new, upgraded scratch’n’sniff Kindle won’t persuade me otherwise.
As for my former student: she says I’ve convinced her. She always did have great judgement.