E Pluribus eBooks

Will the iPad succeed in bringing the classics to a new audience?

Given its massive popularity, there is little surprise that iPad could take esoteric tarot reading and astronomy and make it trendy. Sandra Smiley tells us why e-readers won’t give more currency to the classics.

The e-reader’s success at the tills this holiday season has had pundits auguring a transformation in the way we factotums read – with the huge number of free classics available in electronic libraries, they argue, people will opt for literature’s opera magna rather than paying for the latest potboiler. I’m not sure I buy it. It does seem to me that, since the holidays, markedly more tube passengers are toting that new tablet PC. And there certainly is a growing boodle for the bookish available on the net, with loads of platforms for sharing and initiatives like Project Gutenberg giving up the classics for free. This is great— but I sincerely doubt that it’ll have the proud new owners of iPads revisiting their sixth-form English texts in significant numbers.

I’ll admit I’m not totally convinced by the classics. Like most students of literature, I had them shoved down my throat in a great many torturous sessions of literary gavage euphemised as “undergraduate seminars”. And though I’ve resigned myself to the idea that a knowledge of the classics is good to have tucked away, I choke on ’twases and shants. As  a general rule, I just don’t enjoy reading anything written before our time, the twentieth century — I stumble over snaking syntax, unfamiliar contexts and archaic vocab. Not helping matters is a principled objection to glossaries on the grounds of their obvious impracticality (and one too many paper cuts). Surely I could have done without that trip to the moors of this chapter to find out that “dowlas” is in fact a kind of coarse sacking? Use that one in a sentence.

Classic literature is difficult, better the focus of thoughtful study than a long-haul flight, and I personally maintain that anybody who claims to enjoy a spot of Shakespeare on public transit or bit of Byron before bed is a crook-pated liar. It’s for that reason that the electronic libraries won’t do much for the classics, many now free in ebook form. We won’t see the Kindle do for Lewis Carroll what YouTube did for Justin Bieber, ‘Fred Figglehorn’ or for Heidi the Cross-Eyed Opossum. Being free doesn’t generate interest — striking a chord with people does (although I’m loath to imagine what fire a marsupial with vision problems ignites in the general public).

By now I must have you convinced that were my brow any lower, it’d be my chin. But this isn’t a rip on English lit’s rich and challenging masterpieces – far from it. The simple fact is, much classic literature just doesn’t resound with people as readily as, say, girls with dragon tattoos. Popular contemporary lit presents the reader with familiar and comfortable characters and situation – and unsurprisingly, people will continue to pay for this kind of tome, one that speaks directly to them. The classics, on the other hand, require time and effort to really take in –  and the iPad, with its 1-GHz Apple A4 processor and squillion megabytes of RAM, is hardly working to slow life down. Despite the Kindle’s second coming and the annals of free classics multiplying on the web, the most popular titles, I maintain, will continue to be contemporary. That’s what you’ll see people filling their short spurts of leisure time with, skipping through them on the subway or during the odd Saturday night at home.

If sudoko hasn’t got anything to say about it, that is.

By Sandra Smiley

Sandra Smiley

About Sandra Smiley

Sandra spends her days working in PR and moonlights as a feature writer and blogger. You can follow her on @sandraqsmiley.

Sandra spends her days working in PR and moonlights as a feature writer and blogger. You can follow her on @sandraqsmiley.

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