Amazon is destroying culture. That’s a typical battle cry from old-fashioned, reactionary hacks like me who glance across the Kindle bestseller lists and wince at the sight of a million morons obediently downloading Fifty Shades of Grey and whatever terrible self-published thriller is currently in vogue on the forums.
Sure, more people are reading than ever thanks to Jeff Bezos’ pocket-sized libraries, we moan. But look at what they are reading. Barely a decent novel, even one of contemporary fiction, troubles the top 100. Things are even more grim when you look at the “top free” books. Talk about monkeys at typewriters.
And yet, I do own a Kindle. It’s the new Paperwhite and I have to confess it’s marvellous. It’s more than marvellous, actually: I hate to admit this but it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say it’s slightly transformed my life. I used to read for perhaps an hour a day. Now, it’s four – often more than that.
And it’s pretty clear that the success of the Kindle has encouraged people to read more, whatever it is they’re reading. And yes, that can only be a good thing, as erstwhile Kernel contributor and founder of Noosphere Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry pointed out to me on the telephone yesterday.
I’d called him intent on writing the sort of predictable “what’s wrong with a nice hardback?” column you might expect from a young fogey. But with a few short examples he convinced me that I was being snobbish and stupid.
“If you’re a bored housewife of 45 with access to the internet,” says Gobry, “it’s not a choice between E. L. James and Flaubert. It’s a choice between E. L. James and Farmville. And I’d say, even if only by a whisker, that reading Fifty Shades is a better use of your time than a Facebook game.”
He’s right, of course, and he’s right too that reading is a gateway drug; that bad books often lead to better things. “As a teenager I read Tom Clancy,” he says. “It’s not high literature, but it made me the sort of person who reads. And now I read smart books. Most of the time, anyway.
“If you look at the phenomenon of the Oprah book club, few of the books on her list are masterpieces. I don’t know, there might be a few good books there. But isn’t it a good thing that people all over America are hanging out, reading and talking about books?”
I suppose it is, and as a Mariah Carey fan until the point of death I’m in no position to scoff at popular culture. I have even, mirabile dictu, been moved to investigate Harry Potter, which I would never have done had it not been for the Kindle. (They get great after Azkaban, in case you’re still a Potter virgin.)
It does seem daft not to have read something so completely culturally ubiquitous. For one thing, you miss out on references in conversation and on television. And who wants to be the kind of disingenuous, cranky bore who claims never to have seen an episode of EastEnders? Not I.
So where are the hours being stolen from, if I’m finding all this extra time to read? The truth is I couldn’t tell you. I don’t spend any less time working, that’s for sure. Or rather, to be precise, I don’t produce any less work or get any less done. There’s something about reading that sharpens the mind.
Now I take regular breaks throughout the day to finish a few more chapters of Daphne du Maurier, or Christoper Isherwood, or even, yes, J. K. Rowling. When I return to work I feel renewed, refreshed, brimming with new ideas and anxious to get my own pen to paper.
I probably watch a bit less television, which for me means fewer episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Modern Family. My iPad sits lonely and unused. Occasionally the battery runs down because I haven’t picked the thing up for a week. Instead of wasting six hours on social media, I’ve re-read another Dickens this week.
For the life of me, I can’t think what I was ever worried about.