Thursday, 20 February 2014

The curse of the voucher

We all like to get something for next to nothing and about a year ago, having been badgered by friends who were forever telling me about the wonderful bargains they'd got from Group or Wowcher - cheap holidays, shoes, even computers - I signed up. And soon realised that buying deals wasn't always a case of what you see is what you get.

I have had a couple of excellent, good value spa days; in fact, I shall be having another next Monday in a central London hotel. I've bought enough Oral B electric toothbrush heads to last for the next two years - the toothbrush will probably die before I run out of brushes for it. I have a year's supply of antihistamines for my itchy eyes and drippy nose. All truly useful and good value.

On the other hand, the size L thermal leggings would have been too small for a stick insect and the torch refused to shine. I got the latter replaced, but had to wait weeks for it to be processed, and as the leggings came from Taiwan, I decided it was easier to pass them on to a very tiny friend.

Just lately, having filled my bulging cupboards with everything I could possibly need, apart from a deaf, mute man with a tongue like an anteater and a PhD in computer skills, I launched myself into self-improvement, shelling out £49 for a £499 course in how to build your own website, with a company called Skillsology. The blurb on the voucher site claimed that the course was 'suitable for beginners'. Huh! I reckon I could have done them under the Trades Description Act because, once I'd redeemed the voucher on the company's website, which meant I could no longer claim a refund from the voucher company, I was told that before I could download the course, I had to fill in an on-line questionnaire.

It turned out to be no ordinary, simple, dumbed-down questionnaire, of the 'did you find our p&p charges excellent, good or poor' type. There were 43 questions, they were timed - you had 30 minutes in which to complete them - and you weren't allowed to change your mind and go back, you had to plough on. I looked at Q 1. It was pure technological gobbledygook. I clicked a random answer. Q 2 also made no sense. I only understood one word in three, as the rest referred to things like WX3Z26 protocol, or some such thing. By the time I found myself staring in bemusement at Q5, 20 of my 30 minutes had already elapsed and I had collapsed. I realised I had as much chance of designing a successful astronautical reverse wormhole thruster as I had of correctly answering even one question correctly.

Almost in tears by now, I emailed Skillsology, complaining that the course was absolutely not suitable for beginners and asking if it was possible to get my fee refunded. That was a few days ago. So far, they haven't bothered to reply.

Meanwhile, this morning a friend forwarded a voucher offer for a course on how to format your e-books for Kindle, including designing a cover. Only £29 and sounds just what I need! But then, so did the website one. Let's face it, I'm about as techy as an amoeba. There is no hope. I shall end up like my mum, who gave up on televisions once remote controls were invented. Thank heavens video recorders have bitten the dust. I was still trying to work out how to use mine when they invented the DVD! Though I'm not as bad as someone I know - male, too - who, unable to work a mobile phone, goes out with a walkie-talkie phone. Tin can and a piece of string, here I come!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Bell, Book and Kindle

For the last week, I have been reading a 'real' book. By that, I mean one with a hard cover (£1 in the Sally Army charity shop and the third in Carol Drinkwater's superb Olive Farm series, if you're interested) - one with paper pages to flutter with one's fingers. I tell you, even though it was heavy to hold in bed and my hands outside the bedclothes got very cold, I found it a wonderful, affirming experience and it made me realise that, despite the convenience factor of an e-reader, I shall always have plenty of room in my life for books made of paper.

Of course, not everyone would agree that paper is good and e-reader is bad, so, class, let's discuss the relative merits and disadvantages of paper book versus electronic book. Ding-ding... Start now.

The smell, the feel, the ability to whip back and forth through the pages to find something you want to check or re-read. From a writer's point of view, the sense of triumph at holding your book/baby in your hand, the end product of all those months of hard work. When you look at your groaning bookshelves, the feeling of ownership: indeed, in years gone by, books were bling, a show of conspicuous wealth. They were so expensive to buy, not being mass-produced the way they are nowadays, that they really were jewels in your bookcase. The interesting, sometimes beautiful covers and, in some cases, the pictures inside. The ability to annotate the pages (in pencil, please!). The chance to get them signed by the author. The opportunity to stick a decorative label inside, indicating ownership, if you are prone to lending books out.

Then there are all the other things a book comes in handy for. To prop your magazine against while reading at table. To use as a doorstop. To build a step to help a rickety pet mountaineer onto the bed. To hide illicit love-letters in. To press flowers or a dusty four-leaf clover. As an aide-memoir, to take you back to the phase of your life you were in when you first read the book, which might even bring back an elusive memory of being read to as a babe in bed, from that very book... the smell of Johnson's baby powder and your mother's sweet perfume. And let's not forget the stains that books acquire. Warped, wiggly pages from where you dropped it into the swimming pool in Mallorca when that gorgeous boy pushed you in. The muddy paw-print from a long-deceased pet. Tear-stains between the pages of your poetry book, from when you mourned a departed lover by reading Christina Rossetti, or No Worst, There Is None, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, to a sad accompaniment by Leonard Cohen (try Bird on a Wire, or Suzanne).

I'm sure you could think of many more, so, class, let's move on to...

Weight and size. That's all I can think of. You easily couldn't slip Fifty Shades into your handbag, though you might just manage a Mills & Boon.

Tinkle-ding. Are you awake at the back? Sit up and pay attention for now we come to the digital era.

Small, light and brilliant for travelling as it can hold your entire holiday reading library, meaning you can stuff more shoes and bikinis into your suitcase. (Pause... sound of brain being cudgelled. Bam.) Oh yes, you can increase the print size, which can be a very good thing as I have sometimes been put off reading a novel because of the tiny, eye-straining font size. And some of them come with the ability to increase the brightness of the screen, so you can read in bed, or at night on a plane when they turn off the lights, without disturbing partners and neighbours. You can also read red-hot erotica without anyone knowing. I still giggle when I think of how I pasted the cover of a geometry book onto Lady Chatterley's Lover so we could all read the dirty bits in class.

E-readers are expensive. They can break, or get lost or stolen. You can't navigate through a book as easily as flipping through paper pages. I wanted to re-read a couple of pages of The Goldfinch and my Kindle flatly refused to take me back there, to my immense frustration. (I promptly despatched the book to The Cloud and will look out for a paper copy in the charity shops.) There are no page numbers and, on mine, no option to put them in, so your only method of seeing how far you've got with the book is to look at the stupid percentage sign in the bottom corner, or the other figure telling you how many minutes you are from the end of the chapter. Who cares about that? And doesn't it depend on how fast you read? What a stupid piece of technology.

You can't scribble on e-book pages. You can't turn down the corners of the pages to mark the dirty bits, or the place you were up to. Instead, you have to use a virtual bookmark consisting of a little triangle in the top right corner, rather than a splendid marker of your own choosing (mine has a wonderful description of my star sign, Pisces, on it and a long red tassel). You can't smell e-book pages, or listen to the breeze ruffle them as you recline in your deckchair on a summer day. They are not alive in the way paper pages are. You would never remember what you were doing at the moment you were 42% of the way through Chocolat.

Many e-readers display books in black and white only, so you miss out on the wonderful covers and if there are illustrations or photographs, you cannot see them in all their glory.

Books don't have to be re-charged. E-readers do, which means you have to check if you've got enough battery power to get you from London to Brazil, and you mustn't forget to pack the damn charger for, if you forget it, you will end up buying a real book at the airport, this negating the entire raison-d'etre of an e-reader.

Now we have come full circle, it looks as if the e-reader Con list is as long as the paper book Pro list. But does that mean the paper book has won and the Kindle or Kobo should be banished? Or will technology eventually prevail and all books become historical relics?

Before I toll my bell to banish to Hell whichever of these two word-purveyors is the work of the Devil, let's pause for a moment. Could it be that there is, and always will be, room for both to exist comfortably side by side? I think so. I hope so. E-readers will come and go, in various shapes, sizes and states of development. There will be those who embrace the e-reader wholeheartedly and give away all their books to the charity shop. There will be those who scorn the cold, grey piece of hardware and continue to lug their latest reading material around with them and buy another Billy Bookcase from Ikea when their groaning shelves can't take one more volume.

And there will be those like me, who tread the middle ground; who love their paper books like old friends and still add new ones to their collection, but who recognise the convenience of an e-reader and so divide their reading time between paper and screen, according to where and when they are doing their reading.

Right, class, I'm putting my bell away now and you are free to go. No, not you, Sanjit. I need you to show me how to set up the wi-fi on my Kindle.