Whilst I have read, or reread, many ‘real’ books in the past 20 months, the most significant development in my reading habits has been the acquisition of a Kindle. I do not intend in future to bother specifying in which format I am reading any particular book I discuss, but did want to spend some time giving a general oversight of what I perceive as the strengths and weaknesses of Kindle, an account of the mistakes I made, and how acquiring a Kindle has affected my reading practice.
Like many people I have talked to I was very resistant to Kindle; I felt that the tactile sensations of ‘real’ books (the feel, the smell) would be impossible to replicate. However, again like everyone I have talked to who has succumbed, I now find it invaluable! There are the obvious ways – the portability above all, but there are also those advantages which I have only gradually come to discover through a process of trial and error; and I made a lot of the latter! Initially I spent most of my time downloading an enormous number of free texts from various sites – a process I relished, as I did putting them into ‘categories’ on my Kindle. This was a big mistake for two reasons…
- I soon discovered that many of the texts I downloaded were worthless. There is no point getting the complete works of Sophocles if the translation one is getting is an archaic and unreadable mid-19thC one with no critical apparatus. To get a proper edition it is necessary to pay for a proper modern edition/translation. This does not mean that all free books are worthless – the basic texts of 18th and 19thC British novelists are fine if one is prepared to forego any notes etc.. And occasionally it is possible to pick up decent new books for free, although it is somewhat of a needle in a haystack exercise given the quite extraordinary amount of complete dross which flows in a seemingly endless cycle (I have a daily email alerting me to new free ebooks which is very ample proof of this!). I am now therefore cautious with and sceptical about free books.
- I rapidly accumulated a massive number of books which, as I have said, I put straight onto my Kindle. After a few months it got slower and slower and eventually ground to a halt altogether so I had to buy a new one. Now I know that the claims for an individual Kindle’s memory are enormous, substantially higher than the say 1000 books I downloaded (remember that complete Trollope and Scott alone run into 100 plus books very easily), but I cannot but feel that I overloaded mine. It was also very difficult to use since I had hundreds of books in my ‘literature’ category for instance. Now I have my new Kindle I only have the books I am reading, or likely to immediately read, uploaded – not more than 20 in total. The remainder are just in the archive. And when I do download a new book I just send it to Kindle for PC which is very easy to manage.
Having finally appreciated how Kindle ought to work for me (and getting to grips with Kindle for PC was essential to this) I was then ready to move onto the second use of Kindle (ie: in addition to a reading machine) which was to help us in our clear-out of hard copy books. This is a sad necessity which I have been putting off for years but could not postpone further when Chris retired! The inescapable truth is that we have a great many more books than our small house can give room to. We set aside a sum of money (quite a bit!) and said that we would go through our books discarding (sending to charity shops) those we were never going to read again, or buying a Kindle replacement if available, and keeping only those which were unavailable on Kindle or had some special value to us. So far we are about a quarter of the way through this very long and laborious exercise.
So to what I have actually been reading over the past 20 months! Of course there have been my usual comfort rereads when ill (Christie, Tolkien etc.) but in terms of ‘proper’ reading there are not many books that I can concretely recall. When I first acquired the Kindle I did not just download free books but also spent quite a lot buying books. I mean it is so irresistibly easy – you sit at the computer scrolling through this list of delights and all you have to do to have a text instantly available is click a button. If other people are anything like as weak-willed as me I am astounded that anyone (other than actual printers) complains about the effect Kindle has had on the book trade. Someone got richer off me last year because I bought a lot more books than I would have done if I had been buying paper copies! I do not know if it is Amazon or publishers who profit, but if authors are losing out I would have thought what they need to do is get their agents to renegotiate their contracts rather than indulge in whinging which is what I often hear.
Anyway the one stand out book I read from this spending spree was ThThe Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis by Richard Cobb. My ideas about the Resistance were, I very quickly realised as I read the book, traditional, anglocentric and uninformed: a picture of heroic British agents performing feats of valour as portrayed in a long line of cultural productions such as the TV series Wish Me Luck. This is not to deny that there were heroic British agents who performed feats of valour, nor to knock the value of the cultural productions. But they are only a small part of the story. It is, in any case, as his title makes clear, the French Resistance with which Cobb is concerned. I knew about Communist participation in the Resistance, but I had, for instance, never heard of the great, self-organised, miner’s strike against the Nazis in the Nord Pas-du-Calais in 1941. On the other side of the equation I had not realised the extent of the collaboration of the Petain regime with the Nazis. Both the class struggle and the depth of ruling class collaboration are written out of history – it is another classic example of this practice and a very recent one. One final outstanding aspect which Cobb drew my attention to was the leading role played by women in the resistance and I went on to read the personal account of one these women in Agnes Humbert’s enthralling Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France. These books started me on a WW2 kick and I reread Anthony Beevor’s Berlin:The Downfall 1945 about the battle for and occupation of Berlin in 1945. I have become interested in what happened in Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Hungary, Rumania, Yugoslavia) in the years 1939-46 and who resisted, who collaborated etc. but have been unable to find any books on the subject (so if anyone knows of any please let me know!).
Apart from this I have embarked on alternating readings of the work of Scott and Balzac (which will keep me going for 10 years) and discovered the essays of Gore Vidal (much to enjoy, much to disagree with!). Over recent months however I have been mainly preoccupied with reading Crabbe, biography of Crabbe and Crabbe criticism in preparation for a one-day Crabbe conference in July. But of that many more separate entries I hope!