On the subject of e-readers, I suspect the world population divides neatly into two halves. On one side of the chasm, hell will freeze over and Accrington Stanley will win the FA Cup before anyone will even touch one. And on the other, that looks like fun, can I have one for Christmas?
I was a member of the first group — in fact, its president and hon. secretary — until offered a Kobo for free, complete with Penguin’s new range of dedicated e-books. Like all sensible publishers, Penguin has already dipped its corporate toe in the e-book market, but this new range of ‘Shorts’ and ‘Specials’ is different, in that none of the titles is available in paper form. Unless they sell in huge numbers, in which case they probably will be.
The assumption behind all this is that we are all so busy, and have so little time to read proper books, that these squibs, none of which would fill more than 70 pages if printed on paper, will satisfy us during a hurried lunch hour or a sweaty commute. You can see the point. Kindles and Kobos are nothing if not convenient, especially for city life, and even more so if you have remembered to recharge the battery first. With their first nine titles, Penguin are consciously covering all the bases, and with new releases coming out monthly, there should, in theory, be something for everyone. This first batch includes two short stories, two great battles, a memoir, a Christmas cookery book, and three extended pamphlets in the old Penguin Specials tradition. Each download costs £1.99.
Short stories seem particularly well suited to the medium. Everyone complains there are no outlets for individual short stories any more, and collections never sell as well as novels, but the idea of downloading a 20-page Helen Dunmore tale for lunchtime in the park appeals to me greatly. Protection is typically clever and artful, a nervy skin-prickler that grabs your attention immediately and then develops into a subtler character piece. Anita Brookner, as cutting edge as ever, stays in her discomfort zone for At the Hairdresser’s. ‘I regret the loss of innocence which darkens everything. Now I feel shame not only for my failures but for my all too modest successes.’ You know where you are with Brookner: in this case a drab basement flat in Pimlico. The sixth word of the story is ‘torment’.
Rather more testosterone-fuelled are the two great battles. Saul David writes about Isandlwana: The Great Zulu Victory of 1879, and Colin Smith and John Bierman do Alamein. These are non-fiction equivalents of short stories and both sit very happily on the Kobo. More problematic is Felicity Cloake’s Perfect Christmas Day: 15 Essential Recipes for the Perfect Christmas — not for its content, which is as you would expect, but because cookery books should be big and colourful and easy to flick through, and not scrunched up on a tiny screen without a single picture of mince pies.
Where I can see e-readers becoming useful is in publishing instant books, essentially journalistic works that have to be turned round at warp speed. Back in the day, Penguin Specials were published in a fierce red livery, to match the colour of your face after you had read them. How to Be a Rogue Trader, by the Financial Times’ John Gapper, takes an evolutionary and deeply pessimistic line, and will chill you to the marrow. The Happiness of Blond People, by the Turkish writer Elif Shafak, is no less gloomy about multiculturism, but my favourite of the three was How to Set Up a Free School by our own Toby Young. After the knockabout, solipsistic tone of his earlier books, the world has struggled to get used to the new, sober Toby, but this guide for anxious parents who are thinking of starting their own school is clear, rigorous and very well written. I hesitate to say that it deserves to be published properly, although my own appalling prejudices suggest that it should be.
The best of all these books, though, is Colm Toibin’s autobiographical fragment, A Guest at the Feast. How this one came about is anyone’s guess. Maybe he started an autobiography and lost the will to finish it. Maybe he just isn’t ready yet. But it seems to me that the e-reader is a perfect vehicle for such literary offcuts. This quiet, allusive, apparently structureless ramble through Toibin’s unreliable memories is a genuine pleasure to read, even on a screen, and justifies Penguin’s experiment by itself.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 10, 2011Tags: Book reviews, E-readers, Ebooks