Finally tonight I managed to figure out a way of reading books on my brand new Kindle Paperwhite — no longer so brand new, since I had bought it for my birthday in July. Happy? I’m not so sure. The closest I can feel is a sort of weary numbness. Of course, the fault for it not working properly for so long was entirely mine — I was going on repeating some minor technical glitch. The second Kindle I had bought the same month and shipped to Rimi for her wedding, I hear, has been working perfectly well. So has everyone else’s. This is not a point worth pondering upon. However, there are these others.
The first step is the induction. There was a time when I — not unlike the rest of traditionalists back where I come from — had resolutely pledged to read (and stand by) the printed word. For a brief period that bias took almost a hypocritical shade, for — being the publisher of an online magazine — I expected other people to read good literature on a website while I myself wouldn’t read it unless it was in paper and ink.
Things only started getting very murky when my parents’ house in Calcutta ran out the space for decently stocking the steady stream of books I kept buying. The first to go were my lovingly catalogued bookshelves. Soon books were being poked into any little space that was empty on the shelves. After a while, I had a stack of books permanently on the floor. Besides, there was the daily (okay, let’s say weekly) exercise of dusting, de-cobwebbing, napthalene-izing, which I often didn’t have the time or the energy to do, and which always made the maid grumble. Never had it occured to me so strongly that owning a large and well-maintained collection of books was like owning a piano or a Ferrari or the proverbial white elephant — it demands a kind of privilege of circumstances that you cannot acquire by merely paying the price printed at the back.
Then, last year, I finally moved out of home, and that added another dimension to the story. I went to New Delhi with about five books. I returned from New Delhi, a little more than a year later, with four cartons of them. (One of the nicest perks of being a Penguin employee in India is that you get 50% off on all books across the Pearson range. And you get the occasional book for free.) Most of these books are unread and will remain that way until I return to India — because, as anyone who’s ever tried to pack books in luggage may have observed, books are some of the heaviest objects to ship. (They are also incredibly fragile — as are most loving owners’ feelings about them — so packing them is an ordeal in itself.) They will not even be taken out of their cartons, since there’s no space left in the shelves in that house.
This was the time when I took to the Kindle — in the agony of a half-read book being wrenched from your hands because the luggage limit will Just. Not. Stretch. The Indian store of Amazon had just started business this summer. I had only two other friends who owned Kindles, and both of them received them as gifts from relatives who lived in the USA. One of the reasons I did buy mine was the convenience of being able to order it on my own, without having to beg someone in another country to please-please-please-get-me-this.
It wasn’t until I reached Scotland that I heard the hype about Kobo, and when I did my vibe dulled a little. A Kobo Reader is cheaper than a Kindle, opens a number of file formats (including comic book files!), and isn’t attached to any particular store — all of which are several kinds of excellent. (I am yet to meet a person who owns one, though, so I can’t do a comparative analysis of device performance. Will leave that to the techies, in any case.) But more importantly, it’s the ethical factor for which Kobo is being largely championed. Almost unanimously through the Western publishing and reading circles, Amazon is considered the evil corporate that is taking the food out of the mouths of independent booksellers, distributors, publishers… all the way to the top. (When Penguin and Random House merged together earlier this year, Amazon was a name that was heard a lot.) Kobo, on the other hand, has this lovely collaboration with indepedent bookstores, through which you can buy both the device and your books from a non-chain bookstore.
On the other hand, notice that all these non-chain bookstores happen to be in the USA. It will be long before the Kobo network reaches India, and longer before the independent bookstores in the country have the kind of framework to meet them halfway for a collaboration like this. The only e-books I was reading through my college years in India were pirated PDFs and comic-book files downloaded off the Internet. Before the Amazon India store opened its doors, even those who owned Kindles almost exclusively read pirated e-books. (It’s technically possible to buy and download an e-book from any Amazon store, but the American or British price of a book is significantly higher than the Indian price — even in the e-book format — and why would anyone want to pay more?) Many of these people have started paying at least for the occasional e-book, getting the actual product, since Amazon India has started business. As for myself, I read a lot of Indian writing in English, and the only place I can find some of my books in the digital format is Amazon. Very few Indian books are up there even on piracy websites. Like the Nook, which never caught on in India because its parent company Barnes & Noble doesn’t have a presence there, the Kobo Reader doesn’t currently add anything to the reader’s convenience in India. (You can read many file formats, true, but you will still have to pirate them off the Internet.) Which is to say, as Charlotte Harper confesses in the Guardian about a month ago, ‘I have turned into my worst nightmare – an independent bookstore-loving bibliophile who shops mostly at Amazon.’ At least for now. Let’s see.
A version of this post was published here by the lovely new website The Reader.