Here’s an interesting piece in The Economist, in response to the suggestion (voiced in the New York Times) that e-readers are less off-putting than books; the argument is that part of the appeal of reading a book in public is that it reduces the chance of any social contact with others: “Books require a certain quiet, a solitude that is all the more valuable for the way it can be achieved in public.” And it’s true; if I’m entirely alone, I can manage without a book. If I’m surrounded by others, I need the comfort, the distraction, the protection that it offers.
But back to the notion of sociability. Surely one’s choice of e-reader gives less of a clue to one’s personality – leaving aside for the moment the question of whether that personality might be attractive to others – that one’s choice of book. Do Kindle readers feel some sort of affinity with each other, to the extent that two otherwise unacquainted readers of Stieg Larsson or Sarah Waters or Andy McNab might feel? I’ve had conversations with strangers prompted by what I or they are reading, and have also steered clear of people on the same basis. And then of course there’s the question of whether people use books as a sort of personal branding: I Am The Sort Of Person Who Reads Schopenhauer, Don’t You Know?
I suppose there might be some kind of geeky camaraderie about reading devices, in the way that people might bond over classic bikes or expensive cameras. But surely once you’ve spent three minutes bonding over your Sony or whatever, what you really want to know is what book the other person is reading. Until you find out that the other person is reading Schopenhauer, and you’re reading Andy McNab.