Don't Judge a Book by its Cover?

The way we read is evolving. Ye Olde Booke is being gradually shouldered out of the way by a new generation of e-readers that download digitised versions of your favourite novels. But how does a Kindle, Cybook, or any other kind of e-book measure up to the real thing?


The one is a sleek, cold tablet; one more screen in our daily lives to gawp into. The other is its three-dimensional counterpart; an artefact that can be thumbed, loved, and used as an impromptu doorstop. Downloading a novel is almost always cheaper than buying it, library and second-hand books excepted. The cost of the e-reader itself, however, can easily exceed a hundred pounds, making it an investment. Instead of filling your arms with weighty tomes, the convenient and lightweight design makes reading multiple novels easy. The hand-held reader effectively gives the user a pocket library on-the-go. But can you really curl up with a good e-reader?

Prising open a new book can be like taking a tumble down the rabbit hole. After reading it, its pages will never quite close again, but will stubbornly remain ever-so-slightly ajar. Paperbacks should be taken to the beach, read as you walk along and trip over your own feet, and fallen asleep over at 3am, glasses askew and nose touching the page. Books you’ve hoarded over the years can proudly line your shelves, your Heathcliffs rubbing shoulders with Mikael Blomkvists. Books are susceptible to becoming battered and bent. Reading them on an e-reader, however, can make them a little bit anonymous and characterless. Second-hand or library books can be even more interesting. Every crumpled page tells the story of its previous reads. Who read it before you, and what did they make of the character that you find so strange?

It isn’t just the form of the books that we read that is changing. An edition of David Copperfield with the tagline ‘all the story in half the time’ recently caught my eye in a bookshop. Reader’s Digest first began abridging bestsellers in the fifties. In 2007, Orion Books created a new series of compact editions, calculating that forty percent of a literary classic is superfluous. Dinkier Dickenses, teensier Tolstoys, and miniaturised Melvilles are now available. Excising anything from single words to entire chapters ‘with sensitivity,’ editors reduce the books to a page limit of 400. The theory is that people are now too hard-pressed to pore over big books. These size zero classics have been adapted to a growing ‘goldfish’ mentality in an age of speedier web-browsing and busier lives. One website,, prompts us to think of this as an adaptation of the original, rather like a film, than as a direct replacement. The website also asks potential critics to leave their ‘literary snobbishness’ at the door. Their claim is that these editions in no way detract from the spirit of the original. But critics view this as a compromise of our literary heritage.

Dickens’s novels are, after all, all about their sprawling but interconnected narratives and oodles of humour, each one batting in the region of 900 pages. The novel’s protagonist himself reads for escapism and companionship. A Victorian would have read books very differently. It was the era that saw the first shilling shockers and public libraries; libraries that are now under threat from the government’s funding cuts. Their daily life was increasingly orientated around the publications of books. Whilst ornate three-deckers would be handsomely bound, the serialisation of books in newspapers and magazines revolutionised the fiction industry. The appetite for reading was such that people would press their noses against shop windows to read a page of the latest installment.

Back in the C21st century, there is little doubt that books will be sticking around for a long time yet. But how we read them, and what we read, is changing. In one example, a revamp of Wuthering Heights by HarperTeen publishers has proved particularly controversial. Given a Twilight-esque jacket to appeal to younger readers, the novel appeared with the honorary stamp of approval ‘Bella and Edward’s favourite book.’ But if different forms of reading are engaging new readers, should we be judging a book by its cover?

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