E-Books and Boarding School

Every other day, I get asked for my opinion on e-books and the future of print publishing. I wish I had clever answers, but I'm still trying to get my head around the issues myself. One thing's for sure: the digital revolution poses some big, scary dilemmas - as well as opportunities - for everyone in the book world.

I'm not going to attempt an in-depth debate on the pros and cons of a Kindle, but I am going to put in a special plea for the importance of books as physical objects. Alluringly designed, sturdy little packages you can leaf through, scribble on, give to friends, leave on benches for passing strangers, send to charity shops or bequeath to museums (if they - and you - are really posh). They won't turn off or malfunction. They're biodegradable, yet can last for centuries.

Growing up, I took the presence of books for granted, lining every wall and stacked up on every bedside. So it was quite a shock to arrive at my boarding house, aged eleven, and find a grand total of seven books were provided for our entertainment/enlightenment. They were:

Lord Foul's Bane - spectacularly gloomy fantasy doorstopper
Ross Poldark - turgid 18th century historical romance set among Cornish tin-miners
The L-Shaped Room - the tribulations of a young woman who becomes a single mother in 1960s London
Silver Pennies - a collection of fairy poems
Our Island Story - cosily imperialistic history of Britain, written in 1905
Hymns Ancient and New
A Gideon Bible

That was it.

With the exception of The L-Shaped Room, which is very good indeed, none of these had much to offer a bunch of bored and homesick eleven-year-olds. If e-books had existed back then, there probably wouldn't have been any books at all. I did, of course, have my own stash of novels from home. That's not really the point. Can you - should you? - judge a person by the books on their shelves? I do. Can this apply to institutions - schools, prisons, hospitals - as well? Yes. And I think you can know all you need to about life in Bryntaff Boarding House, 1991, by the barrenness of its bookshelves.

There weren't any after-school activities for us boarders, except for the allotted half-hour of TV each night. But we did have the option of doing prep (homework) in the library before supper. This was much better stocked than the boarding house, and I spent the time I was supposed to be working in reading. The most accessible supply of stories, however, were the "lucky dip" boxes kept in each form room. I don't know which teacher or librarian kept the boxes topped up, but whoever it was, knew what they were about. In the first box I came upon I found:

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Catcher in the Rye
I Capture the Castle

All great reads, all very different. And what a brilliantly simple way of dispensing them! Most school children (unless they're geeks like yours truly) don't want to be caught hanging out in a library in their spare time. But a battered box of books, ready to be rummaged through in a rainy break-time, is a much easier proposition.

Books can be ugly objects as well as beautiful ones. Sometimes they're unwieldy. Sometimes they're a waste of paper. But I think stories are too important to be reduced to pixels on a screen. They need to line our rooms and our lives. They need to be stumbled upon by people who wouldn't normally seek them out; picked up, passed on.