Free

This weekend I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time: got rid of all my books.

Well, not all of them. A couple of cherished volumes remain. An edition of Ulysses I was given at 16;  a few textbooks peppered with notes from b-school; rather too many graphic novel trade paperbacks, my guilty pleasure. (If you so much as think Kapow or Biff, I’ll hunt you down; “Sandman” and “100 Bullets” are high art.) But I think I’ll get rid of even those, in time.

Because I’ve completed the transition.

All those word-filled bricks everyone keeps forever – because they’ve owned them since teenhood, or make a shelf look dressed, or plan to read sometime but never get around to – are now boxed up into giveaways.

My literary life’s now entirely digital, and I couldn’t be happier.

My KindleI came late to Kindle, buying a fondlepad only in 2011. But now there’s a hundred volumes on there, including a fair few I owned already and bought again for the convenience, and it’s started me reading again because it’s just so simple. I don’t pay heed to the Booker list or Times Literary Supplement; too new (literature needs time to let the good bits bubble up) and the pop-science works are too bulky when released and out of date when they reach paperback. Business strategy books come and go, and any good review gives you their main ideas; ninety-nine out of a hundred you never need to read and even fewer are worth keeping, while investment texts tend towards thousand-page epics that put too much weight in my backpack. My Kindle is as close as I’ll ever get to an addiction, because…

I’m all about the kilograms.

Minimalists don’t own much. Storing everything I own during a year away took a single lock-up cube a metre and a half along each side. And most of that – eight 50cm cardboard boxes, about four hundred kilos – was bookware, the old fashioned ink-on-paper sort with spines that crease and dogears that take decades to delete themselves.

The photographs I own that use paper as their substrate… fit into a small worn envelope. I haven’t bought a single CD since I came back to the UK early this century; all went onto my hard disk years back. I don’t buy DVDs any more; what’s the point in the era of LoveFilm and NetFlix? (And the 400 or so I bought in more stuff-obsessed times fit into two wallets if you strip away the boxes.)

But books … they were my last holdout. About six hundred of them, masses of fiction and nonfiction amassed over thirty years.

The travel guides went first. In a summer of injury I surfed the globe in DK’s illustrated technicolour instead, and never lost the habit. But they’re gone now. Then textbooks, many on stuff that just interested me at the time: molecular biology, nuclear physics, electronics and nanotechnology and supramolecular chemistry. A step closer to the bestseller lists came the popsci: Gleick and Deutsch and Dawkins, papery chaos reduced to bits and forced into extinction. Then a torrent of penguins: Dickens to Melville and and Burroughs to Pynchon, Shakespeare to Thompson and Wolfe. (Not because I don’t want them, but because I’ve got them in a format without heft or inertia; classics in particular cost pennies in e-book format.) Gibbon was declined, and fell; no element of Euclid had solid reason to remain choate; Plato and Aristotle failed to justify their existence. Old Oxford anthologies – monster kilobricks of two thousand pages apiece, six of them – crumbled into memories flakier than a Don’s potato. MBA Required Readings got skipped; Operations textbooks were surgically removed.

With every handful heaved cartonwards, I felt a little more free.

And I hope this is the way we’re all going.

A state of mind where we can all be free. Footloose and open to opportunities, living lives free of compromise beholden to no-one.

Free of the suffocating paperstuff that weighs us down and anchors us in one place because it creates too much inertia to do anything else.

Too many educated people are in thrall to their libraries, their natural impulses to explore held in check by the gravitational pull of a hundred groaning bookshelves. I’ve seen apartments in this town where every wall is covered and doors only open as far as the stacks huddled behind them allow. Old people yellowing in synchronicity with the foxing on ancient hardbacks: best case = lost in the words they love as their lives trundle towards midnight, worst case = trapped by them and prevented from giving the world beyond a last hurrah. I’ve seen young people already circumscribed by what they own, life choices inexorably narrowed because they’ve got too much stuff to carry around.

Where are they going? To the Sahara. There’s a lot of decent reading in there, and a charity’s willing to take them off my hands. A part of the world where, sadly, too many maniacs with too few ideas are running amok. Men who follow an apocalyptic antithesis of my idea: that only one book matters, and no other knowledge should be allowed.

They burn ancient libraries that give the lie to Africa being a land of oral tradition. They shoot girls in the head for going to school. They contort ancient beliefs into laws that benefit themselves, and rule by terror and blood. These men must be stopped.

Perhaps by throwing a few hundred kilograms of books into the endless desert, a boy who’d otherwise pick up an AK and a headful of hate will pick up a book instead. And step onto another path.

Perhaps today, I’m stopping one bullet from being fired in ten years’ time. And that can only be a good thing.

Kindle Fire: up in smoke?

I love my Kindle with a passion. In less than a year I’ve got whole libraries on there; I get The Economist delivered to it; I’ve put a library of classics referenced by historical era and geographical origin on it that I’m sure I’ll get round to reading someday.

But I won’t be buying a Kindle Fire. And usability expert Jakob Nielsen has put his finger on why.

The Fire is a tablet, not an e-reader. It’s a computer, a general-purpose device. And any jack-of-all-trades instantly loses the stuff that makes it special, just as a camel is a racehorse designed by committee.

With my bog-standard Kindle, it’s some gestalt of the e-ink display (no backlight, just like paper) and the few bars and buttons (they turn a page, do nothing else); it feels like a book, reproducing the experience of reading without the silly (Hi, Apple!) cheese-graphics of wood-grained bookshelves and leather-stitched edging. Just as 80s-era text adventures gave you the feel of wandering around Zork without a graphic ever being needed, a Kindle celebrates the book by not trying too hard to be one. It’s a bluesman, not a cheesy tribute band.

And yet, of course, I’m tempted. I like hi-res colour screens more than most people (I run a full 2880 x 1800 on the Windows partition of my Mac.) And the Kindle Fire is new, always appealing to a techhead. But I’m older and wiser about these things today, because…

… I’ve been here before.

About a decade ago, seduced by a colour screen and animated apps, I traded my PalmPilot for an IPAQ. (Remember them?) At first I was excited by the colour screen and a version of Windows that fitted in my pocket (sort of); something that could run Word and Excel as well as keep my calendar.

The excitement lasted all of two days. It wasn’t even a week before I started missing my Palm.

The Zen-like simplicity of the Palm 5 (the last one I owned) was what the IPAQ – and today, the Fire – is missing. The Palm really fitted in your pocket, and didn’t even weigh you down. The battery lasted for weeks. The black-and-white screen and crisp text just worked. It had that essential subset of functions you needed each day with the option to add more only as you wanted them. No palmtop or phone has ever been as useful as my little Palm, and I miss it even today.

The Zen of e-reading is the same, as long as you stick to the e-readers. Don’t ever assume reading a novel on an iPad or Fire is going to be the same experience: they’re heavier, more complex, and backlit, more tiring on the eye than any e-ink page and not like a book.

To be honest, I’m not sure how big I am on the whole tablet phenomenon to start with; I’m a content creator, whereas most people are content consumers, and pads are for consuming.

And there’s the rub. Seduced by the splash of colour, pads and tablets may well kill off e-readers: not much room for a specialist in a world of good-enough generalists. The Kindle phenomenon won’t go away, but reading books on a backlit screen with fixed pagination just isn’t going to be the same; if it was, all books today would be published in PDF. e-ink companies are already having problems; electronic paper just isn’t glamorous enough for a world that doesn’t read much. But I’m not making the same mistake I did a decade back.

I’ll keep on loving my Kindle, and may well be loving it long after the technology is obsolete.