Until last week, kindling was always a common noun in my house. I have a huge bag of it next to my Danish piano (an unusual instrument, that looks as if it's been stolen from an infants' school gymnasium). However, during the last seven days it has become a verb for something completely unrelated to fire, although it has had an incendiary effect on the book trade.
I have written many derisive comments about the Amazon Kindle and ebooks in general. As someone who has spent most of their working life in the book trade, it was the default position to take. I love books. For all their worthiness, books are surprisingly sensual objects, engaging all of the senses except taste. Ebooks were the enemy: drab, monochrome devices, reducing every reading experience to uniform fonts, grey backgrounds and a dependence on electricity.
However, like most puritans, I was a hypocrite, secretly fascinated by the ebook phenomenon.
I first saw an ebook in 2000. It looked like an upmarket Psion Organiser and I was underwhelmed, but slightly unnerved by the realisation that something better would appear in a year or two. However, fours years on, ebooks still showed no sign of making any inroads into the book trade and a lot of people were content to bury their heads in the sand.
It says a lot about the book trade that during the mid-'noughties', The Friday Project were regarded as 'zeitgeisty' for turning web content into paper books. We had no idea.
The Amazon Kindle was launched on November 19th 2007 and sold out in under six hours. Customers had to wait for five months before the Kindle was back in stock. But in spite of the apparent demand, the Kindle had a neglible effect on book sales and at the time, it looked like a geeky toy that would never break through into the mass market.
But last year, everything changed. The third generation Kindle was one of the bestselling Christmas presents of 2010 and sales of ebooks began to affect the bestseller charts. Admittedly, this was largely driven by Amazon, who were keen to reduce their warehousing and postage costs by selling ebooks, but nobody could deny that the Kindle was changing the way people bought books.
I became increasingly obsessed by the Kindle and railed against it in various blog posts, but somebody saw straight through me and said that I was on the "verge of Kindledom".
Last week, I asked people to give me reasons for not buying a Kindle and received a number of interesting comments which helped me make up my mind. The following day, I ordered one:
These book titles are quite apposite and I like the "Welcome Philip" - everyone calls me Phil apart from Amazon and my mother. That's how it should be.
It took a while to get used to the light grey screen, but overall I like the Kindle. I had very low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. As some people have said, it doesn't replace the printed page, but it does provide an interesting alternative.
I like the fact that I can order the new Henning Mankell - a book I will probably never read again - without having to go through the process of travelling to a bookshop or ordering a hardback, only to find a slip on my doormat saying that the parcel was too big for my letterbox. I also love Project Gutenberg, which enables me to download any one of thousands of classics in under a minute.
What I don't like about the Kindle is the conspicuous absence of most titles published between the 1940s (the threshold of copyright) and four years ago. These titles are all not available in Kindle format:
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Great Railway Bazaar
Mr Norris Changes Trains
The Stone Diaries
The Slaves of Solitude
The Well of Loneliness
I Capture the Castle
The Dice Man
The Accidental Tourist
Things Fall Apart
The Female Eunuch
The Bone People
Guns, Germs and Steel
Miss Smila's Feeling For Snow
The Tin Drum
The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold
I could go on.
Obviously these gaps will gradually be filled, but at the moment I'm impressed by how many books aren't available as downloads, in spite of the hyperbole. We could probably all live without The Bone People and The Dice Man, but Blindness? Come on Random House!
In spite of this, as a reader, I like the Kindle more than I thought I would. As a bookseller, I feel nervous. My project at work is going well and on its own merits, is pretty Kindle-proof, but it is completely dependent on a larger business that sells used paperbacks for a penny on Amazon marketplace. If they go under, so do I.
Last week was my best ever, but in spite of that, I could still be out of a job. I won't be taking out any loans for the time being.
It's hard to know what will happen, as the success of ebooks depends on a number of factors. If digital books become as easy to illegally download and share as MP3 files, then book trade as we know it may be largely finished, apart from niche areas like titles for young children. But on the other hand, people have a greater emotional attachment to books than they did to records, tapes and CDs, so the reading world may be more pluralistic.
I bought a Kindle for two reasons. First, I wanted to understand at first hand the phenomenon that is having such a large impact on the industry I work in. Second, I loved the Kindle's space-saving properties. My small, Victorian terraced house is slowly sinking under the weight of books, many of which I'll never read again. I don't need a hardback copy of the latest Henning Mankell. I'd rather save the shelf space for books that are particularly beautiful.
I know that some people may cry "Judas!", but I've tried to remain open minded and the pro-Kindle comments on this blog have been so eloquent and well-argued, I had to find out for myself.
Jonathan Main (aka Bookseller Crow) wrote this excellent article on the Kindle, arguing that "It is functional in the way that listening to Mozart on a transistor radio is convenient in the circumstances but ultimately completely unfullfilling". However, I think we have to separate the message from the medium. I was all geared-up to hate the Kindle, but was surprised to find that once I was immersed in the text, I forgot that I was even reading one.
Of course, when we enter the next dark age, all of our digitised culture will disappear in a puff of smoke and the Riddley Walkers of the future will be denied the pleasure of reading The Da Vinci Code.
Now there's a thought.
P.S - STOP PRESS - Visit Bookseller Crow's blog for this funny, poignant anecdote about the threat of ebooks.