I was unpleasantly reminded of the sometimes virulent passions that can be unleashed by the e-book debate on Mayan apocalypse day, as I was sitting in a cafe near Budapest’s Chain Bridge, reading on my Nexus 7.

A middle-aged English couple were sitting at the next table, and as they left, the man launched into an angry anti-e-reader rant to his partner: how the book had been around for thousands of years and was unimprovable; how if he was given such a device he would throw it away … and so on. As usual, I was too slow on the uptake to fully realize what was going on until he was out the door, so you all get the benefit of my delayed reaction.

It spoiled my day. What is happening when a guy can’t even read in peace in a public place? Can you imagine such a reaction to someone reading a print book in a cafe? Suddenly the act of reading is getting as fraught as under Stalinism or the Nazis.

Aside from confirming the ugliest stereotypes about the angry English, though, it did make me think. People have to be so indignant for a reason. I can only assume it’s for fear of attack on a tradition: something of eternal value being sacrificed for faddism. Yet in my view, those who feel e-books undermine the written word have it the wrong way round. It is the print bigots who are the useful idiots of the copyright authoritarians and the obscurantists. They are the ones conspiring to limit and deny free access to high thought and great art, and to undermine and diminish efforts to promulgate these.

e-readingWords have been around a lot longer than paper. So has written literature. From Sumerian clay tablets to Zhou dynasty bamboo strips, there are thousands of years of antecedents to the book. The words outlasted every medium used to preserve them. They will almost certainly outlast e-books, too. The message is the locus of value, not the medium; the tidings, not the bearer. And too often, those who confuse the two are obstructing the message.

I may be overreacting to one instance. But it doesn’t feel that way. I suspect those attitudes are far more widespread and more embittered than we realize. England has a long history of denying its people learning for the sake of misguided priorities. It’s a shame to see that carried over into a new generation and a new medium.

And incidentally, the guy was a teacher.


  1. I understand and sympathize with your reaction. The man was clearly being discourteous. As to his complaints, I find them to be on the wane as e-reading steadily gains ground. I think that there will always be some physical-media hold-outs. My daughter is one. Some of my students as well — I’m a teacher, too, but you can expect much more courtesy from me if we meet in a cafe.

    May I direct you to a post on my blog from a few months ago? “In defense of the scroll, by Seneca the Younger” http://wp.me/p1hz0K-4k

    All the best on the holidays.

  2. Hardly anything bothers me when visiting Hungary but this might just cross the line for me too. Perhaps he assumed that you could not understand English, a conceit that has put many a Brit (and Americans, too) into all sorts of embarrassment. We should change “lingua franka” to “lingua angol.” English is spoken or understood almost everywhere. How did you learn that he was a teacher?
    One can theorize that those who made their way in the world and achieved some success via print such as a professor might, could see eBooks as a refutation or rejection of those achievements. Irrational, yes, but quite human.

  3. Nazism and Stalinism? Really? Because someone doesn’t like your technology? You feel threatened with extermination? Lame.

    Really badly written. False comparisons used to justify a bullying rant abt the superiority of ereaders. Snore.

  4. Nice to have such a measured, courteous response from your side too, Deran. I guess editor Dan agreed whole-heartedly with your remarks, which is why he chose to run the post.

    Thinking back, I don’t recall many cases where the act of reading in itself is enough to trigger angry outbursts, though opening a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in a Tel Aviv cafe might justifiably do it. As to threatened with extermination, well, I almost got into a fight about it, and though I’m younger and fitter than the other guy was, who knows? This is definitely intolerance, call it how you like. And no one would have qualms about equating intolerance with totalitarianism if that outburst had been about the colour of my skin.

    And badly written? You can take issue with my argument, but care to point out where the prose falls down? It may not be Milton at his finest, but that bad? Really?

    Note, this post is *not* about the superiority of ereaders, merely about acceptance for all media used to perpetuate the written word. Kindly show me a sentence in my post that argues for the superiority of ereaders above the printed book.

    Frank, as to your question, I’d overheard some of the couple’s previous conversation, and gathered that the guy was an ELT teacher dealing with mature foreign students.

  5. eBooks were once a tiny niche for hobbyists and enthusiasts.
    Then came Kindle and over the past 5 years ebooks have become a mainstream product, bringing a technology disruption to the staid, stable, traditionalist publishing industry. What had worked “just fine” since the 19th century is now imperiled.
    Danger brings fear–a fight or flight response–and anger. (And I’ll skip the Star Wars quotes.)
    Also worth considering (in a lot of locations) is that the poster child for ebooks is Amazon: a big, brassy, *American* company. Don’t discount a tinge of anti-americanism and guilt-by-association.
    Change brings conflict and strong emotion.
    Combine that with human tribalism and aggression and somebody having a bad day…
    The threat was real but fortunately muted.
    I would not, however, be at all shocked to see a report in the near future of somebody getting attacked over their reading device. Not if any or all of the BPH mergers under dicussion go through (big if, but still…). There is a *ton* of BPH downsizing ahead.
    People’s livelihoods are at stake.
    Violence *is* a (low but real) possibility; the spirit of Ned Ludd is always with us.

  6. What the heck has happened to teleread? Every since the original writers “left” and the new owners took over there’s been very little informative/useful journalism, instead we get some tourist’s “scary” situation in a cafe over their ereader and before that some one with a few suggestions for proofreading mass scanned books? And a story about a delivery person stealing a delivered package? This is journalism? Joanna Cabot seems like the last real journalist writing here. What a shame.

  7. @Deran; You might want to consider that things are slow in ebook-land these days.
    For starters, its the holiday season.
    For another, the Authors Guild and the rest of the traditionalists are still processing the news of mergers (and lay-offs) to come, while the ebook “revolutionaries” are absorbing the signs that ebook adoption in the US may be plateauing.
    Its a season for sitting down and reflecting on life and the world around us; if enough people do this, they won’t be out making news.
    Nonetheless, fret not; in another week or two we’ll start getting new reports on how bad the holiday season went for Amazon, B&N, MacMillan, and the merging BPHs…
    Expect plenty of meaty news in january, even if not all will be good.
    (In other words: be careful what you ask for–you might get it.)

  8. His rant was to his partner and was therefore a personal conversation between them, He wasn’t directing his opinions at you, so why are you so upset? Are there not things that happen in this world that you don’t like?

    I’m probably missing the point but it seems to me that he feels much the same way about e-books as you do about the English.

  9. @Jonathan,
    Sometimes a “private” remark to one’s companion is loud and accompanied by attention grabbing gestures. When that’s the case, it’s obvious that the intended audience forms a much wider circle. Like Clint Eastwood speaking to an empty chair, rhetorical devices are masks that we need to take account of.

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