Short Cuts

James Meek

‘For voters, feelings prevail over beliefs,’ Peter Mandelson writes in The Third Man. ‘People may be torn between their head and their heart, but ultimately it is their gut feeling that is decisive: they vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not necessarily the one who presents the right arguments.’ This clear and succinct expression of the idea that emotion is the true currency of democratic politics stood out on the page, and I moved to underline it, only to realise someone had done so already. Oddly, the book was spit new. It wasn’t even on paper. It was an ebook, a digital form of Mandelson’s masterwork that I’d downloaded from Amazon via the Kindle app on my iPad in the hope (futile, as it happened) of gleaning information about an obscure moment in recent British history. How could someone have been there before me? Each copy of each ebook, stored as bits of electronic data, is always new, the pages as white and the text as crisp as the day they were generated. I’d never looked at that page before. Yet there, under Mandelson’s bleak words, was a faint, dotted grey line. I touched the passage with my fingertip, and the explanation appeared in a pale blue balloon: ‘Eight other people highlighted this part of the book.’

I’d become one with the metareader, locked in a cloud computing mind-meld with eight people I’ll never meet, whose concordance with my appetite for Mandelsonian aperçus I didn’t want to be told about. I can, I discovered, turn the function off, but I can’t abolish it. Once there were private libraries; then there were public libraries; now there is the ghost library, where poltergeistic fellow readers may not only be reading the same book as you at any moment but actually underlining the page of the book you are reading seconds before you get to it. They may be next door; they may be in Kamchatka; they may be anywhere, so long as they have Kindle and wifi.

Students are familiar with library textbooks that come pre-annotated with the marginalia of their predecessors, sometimes with abusive notes scrawled on notes, in a prefiguration of flame wars between anonymous website posters (it isn’t a coincidence that since the internet became ubiquitous, toilet graffiti have almost disappeared). But with Kindle the book is no longer a passive surface. It constantly checks in with all the other versions of itself and adjusts its surface according to the impressions the metareader has left on it.

If the metareader is populous enough, a much noted passage will be recorded on Amazon’s ‘Most Highlighted Passages of All Time’ chart. The number one and two spots, highlighted by 7073 and 6529 readers respectively, are held by eerily banal sentences from Suzanne Collins’s best-selling young adult science fiction trilogy The Hunger Games; the first line of Pride and Prejudice comes in at number three, with 6026. These are big numbers, given what a fiddly business it is marking text on an e-reader. They reflect the take-up of the devices in the US, where more than half of what would once have been paperback sales are now digital books. Alongside the physical Kindle, Barnes and Noble’s Nook is selling well. The iPad and iPhone come with Apple’s iBooks app. During last week’s Frankfurt book fair W.H. Smith announced it was to distribute an ebook reader called the Kobo (not to be confused with the Obok or the Koob, or Stalin).

I don’t care for the feeling I had when I realised that the virtual book I bought and downloaded new for £3.99 was noting my annotations and reporting back to the Amazoverse: a syncing feeling. I am only grateful the ebook has no e-spine breakage to snitch about, or worse. ‘Eight other people threw this book in the recycling bin in disgust.’ ‘Eight other people skimmed the first third of this book, looking for juice, then put it to one side, intending to look at it later, and though they never did, always spoke about it afterwards as if they’d finished it.’

The lightness of the ebook medium, literally and figuratively, holds a terrible allure and an insidious threat to the heavily booked-up among us. How many marriages, seemingly held firm by the impossibility of moving several hundredweight of vinyl or CDs out of a family-sized home, have already foundered post the digitisation of music? How many more will break if apparently inseparable and immovable matrimonial libraries become something that anyone can walk out with in their pocket?

Moving flats this weekend I was confronted with the objective reality of owning half a tonne of paper books without having a mansion to put them in. In the first part of the move I helped a strong man from Romania to carry my boxes of books up two storeys and put my back in agony for the next two days. Soon afterwards, in the gym, the trainer I am paying to make my back strong added extra weights to my routine. Yet when it came to the second part of the move – many more boxes of books – I didn’t add more weight to my load. I added another Romanian. He told me of one intellectual who’d got him to carry 60 boxes of books, each weighing 40 kilogrammes, up to the fifth floor of a block of flats, without seeming to think she was asking him to do anything remarkable.

The feel, weight and smell of my own paper books in my hand, some of them old friends I haven’t seen for years, is a joy. As physical books I can not only keep them and reread them but give them away, lend them to people, take them to second-hand booksellers. But there are lines I would rather not cross: walls of books on more than two sides, for instance, or a sound from the floorboards like the imminent fall of a sawn-out Redwood pine when I slot the last volume of Remembrance of Things Past into its place. The rise of the ebook offers the chance to be ruthless in the personal paper library without losing the ability to keep text. On the urban bookshelves of the crowded future world only the loved and the beautiful will survive.